Some romantic customs were even, well, sort of shocking …
If New Englanders were always so stuffy about love, sex, and romance, how come it was commonly approved practice for young couples to go to bed together before they were married? And also, more surprisingly, to get married in the nude? Both are true. Young New England unmarried boys and girls would indeed go to bed together as part of the courting routine — but with their clothes on. It was called bundling. When I was a teenager, I knew about people who “courted” in bed with their clothes on (and, like today, off), but I have never met anyone who actually called it “bundling” or who remembers their parents or grandparents admitting to the practice. Yet bundling is written about so much in New England literature that there must be a little flame creating all that smoke.
Most accounts I’ve read indicate that a centerboard was lowered between the bundled couple. Or sometimes a straight stick, called a “whispering rod,” was secured between the boy and the girl at both ends of the bed, to which, also, a few sleigh bells were tied. (If their parents heard something akin to “Jingle Bells” during the night, I’m sure the young couple were in big trouble.)
Joseph Chase Allen, who wrote a monthly column for YANKEE Magazine years ago called “Sayings of the Oracle,” once told me, “I’ve seen ’em roll the young folks up in quilts and then haul a wool sack over ’em and tie it around their necks. But somehow,” he usually added with a chuckle, “they always managed to clear themselves before morning.” Joe often had his tongue in his cheek, but I have heard from other sources that wool sacks were often substituted for centerboards.
Now about the old custom of getting married in the nude … it was called a “shift marriage” and although not a New England invention, it was nonetheless fairly common in New England, particularly Rhode Island, as well as in New York and Pennsylvania. It occurred when a man was marrying a widow, and it was only the lady who was nude, or in a shift, to symbolize that she brought nothing to the marriage but herself and was not responsible for any of her former husband’s debts. Sometimes her presence at the ceremony was represented only by her arm, thrust through a “widow’s hole” from behind a closed door. Unlike bundling, this awkward and probably embarrassing little custom is well documented.
For instance, here is a so-called shift-marriage entry from the old registration books at the town hall in South Kingston, Rhode Island: “Thomas Calverwell was joyned in marriage to Abigail Calverwell his wife the 22 February, 1719. He took her in marriage after she had gone four times across the highway in only her shift and hairlace and no other clothing. Joyned together in marriage by me. George Hazard, Justice.”
What do these old-time romantic customs have to do with Christmas? Well, maybe not much except to say that for most, Christmas has always been a cozy, loving time of year. So Merry Christmas, everyone — and Happy Hanukkah, too.
This is Jud’s New England Journal from December 2015!