Soon, people the world over will be silently judging their significant others by the size of their bouquet, box of chocolates, and bling. Ah, modern love — it all seems so trite when compared to the traditions of yore. Before Beyoncé was telling us to put a ring on it and greeting cards were expressing our feelings for us, young lovers were vying for each other’s attention with strange and fascinating courtship rituals. Parts of the globe still practice these endearing and bizarre customs, and we bring you the best of the bunch after the break.
For young couples considering marriage, bundling became a popular practice across Europe and Colonial America. Serious lovebirds would test the law of attraction by sleeping fully clothed in bed with a board or sack between them to quell any sexual temptation. Sometimes they were even sewn into their sheets. Clearly, no one was playing “light as a feather” at this sleepover.
Sweethearts not ready for bundling expressed their desires in other ways — but only at a safe distance. A hot date back then consisted of hanging out at home under the watchful eyes of your parents, but there was a way around their incriminating gaze. The courting stick was a six-foot-long hollow device fitted with ear and mouthpieces that allowed young couples to whisper sweet nothings to each other while in polite company.
Eligible women in rural Austria during the 19th century would tuck apple slices in their armpits while dancing. When the music stopped, they would offer the sweat-soaked fruit to their partner. He would consume the exotic treat if he wanted to be “exposed to her personal sexual fragrance.”
Photo credit: Louis Quail
Throughout history, sex before marriage was usually considered taboo. Not so in Cambodia, where members of the Kreung tribe have adopted a polyamorous, premarital lifestyle. Unmarried teen girls can explore sex with multiple partners in a “love hut.” Parents build the shelters for their daughters as a way to encourage empowerment, independence, and help them find their one true love. The tiny houses aren’t just for sex. They also offer partners a quiet place to talk and get to know one another.
The Dai people from the southwest of China still practice several ancient courtship traditions, including one that finds young singles gathering by the village bonfire at night. The women sit around it wearing billowing skirts, quietly turning their spinning wheels. Men draped in red blankets “visit” the women by circling them, serenading the group with various instruments. If a man takes a liking to one of the girls, he will approach her directly with a song. If a woman wants to get the attention of a guy, she will invite him to sit down by offering him a stool (she keeps it tucked under her skirt until the time is right). The men wrap their dates in blankets, and they quietly talk.
Fine English gentlemen would offer their true love a pair of gloves. If she wore them to church on Sunday, it was her way of agreeing to the relationship. If not, they spared themselves a lot of drama.
To prepare for marriage in traditional Hindu Balinese society, girls and boys approaching puberty undergo a ritual tooth filing. Preparations for the special day are extensive, six teeth are filed, and the ceremony often concludes with prayer at the family temple. Tooth filing is one of 13 rituals completed throughout a person’s life and is done to help cleanse them of sin.
Norway doesn’t win any points for subtlety when it comes to courtship, but their methods were very Game of Thrones-ish, so we approve. When a girl became ready for marriage, her father would let men know she was available by placing an empty sheath on her belt. If a suitor fancied her, he would place a knife in the sheath, which would signal to others she was taken.
Taiwanese aboriginal tribe the Atayal are one of several that practiced headhunting as a way to demonstrate their valor and ability to provide for a family. The gory trophies were boiled, dried, and hung for protection. Displaying your enemy’s head wasn’t enough to win the heart of an Atayal woman, however. Ladies were free to reject as many marriage proposals as they wanted before tying the knot, but could only get hitched with the proper facial tattoos.
Since the 17th century, Welsh couples have been demonstrating their fondness for one another by trading lovespoons. The intricately hand-carved wooden spoons are decorated with various symbols. Some lovespoons were handed down to younger generations and carvings were added, while others were created so men could show off their craft. Proving your woodworking prowess to your beloved’s father has disappeared from Welsh courtship rituals, but the lovespoons are still gifted as decorations — especially on Valentine’s Day.
Irish travelers, the Romanichal (British travelers), and other “gypsy” groups recently became the subject of the British documentary TV series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. A courtship ritual known as “grabbing” was revealed, in which young traveler girls are physically grabbed by the men that admire them. “Strict rules stipulate girls aren’t allowed to approach boys, so it’s up to the males, aka the ‘grabbers,’ to tempt the girl away from her group of friends and try to get a kiss off her, even sometimes going as far as twisting her arm.” Some traveler groups say grabbing doesn’t actually exist.