This past weekend was an exciting time for my family. It was the first “official” event on my youngest daughter’s journey to her wedding day in September. A surprise shower was held for her, and the reality of my “baby girl” getting married has actually begun. Since Abby’s engagement, she has been immersed in all of the details for her wedding. Planning is so much more involved today than when my cousins were planning their weddings in Duquesne.
I know I have written about weddings before, but I never get tired of thinking about how awesome a good old fashioned hunky wedding managed to turn out. I am sure that there was a lot of planning involved, but the involvement of aunts and uncles somehow made the process a bit easier back in my youth.
I was one of the “babies” in my extended Croatian/Slovak hunky family. Most of my cousins were older than be and were getting married when I was not yet in my teens. What I remember however, is that there was what I would describe as a traditional Hunky Wedding “blueprint” each wedding would follow.
Step one was always the “announcement” that something exciting was happening in the family. The news of the engagement would spread like wildfire among all of the aunts and cousins the instant one of the family had become engaged. It was as if there was a hunky bugle call for the troops to “fall in” and almost instantaneously, plans were hatched:
• Which aunts were going to host the bridal shower?
• Who was going to cook the food for the reception?
• Who was baking which cookies for the cookie table?
• Who was going to make the flowers for the cars and who would be
• Etc., etc., etc.
As tradition would have it, once an engagement was announced, an “official” proclamation would be published in the paper. I would have a similar effect to changing one’s “status” on Facebook to “in a relationship.” In truth, I think it was a way to tell other suitors that it was “hands off” and for hunky mothers to proclaim “AT LAST” to all of their friends and family!
The announcement that I found in The Duquesne News were rarely accompanied by a photograph, however, those published in The Daily News usually had a picture of the bride-to-be. In most cases, it was the girl’s senior high school picture that was used. That differs from today’s trend which is to have a special group of “engagement photographs” taken of the couple together at a cost of several hundred dollars!! Isn’t capitalism wonderful?
Preparing for the bridal shower was something I was never privy to. However, I recall fragments of conversations during the planning process as my mom would be on the phone talking to one of my aunts. Details for food, decorations, games and gifts were hashed out between family members for weeks and weeks. Based on what I learned from conversations with my aunts in later years, regardless of the tons of planning that went into the shower, they all seemed to serve the same food, play the same games and bring the same gifts shower after shower.
“Back in my day,” there was one key element that defined the Duquesne Hunky wedding! The Kleenex Carnation!!! I have seen many pictures of first generation Slovaks and Croatian wedding groups. In each picture, the bride was usually laden with a garland that was made of fresh flowers that was draped over her veil. However, as traditions evolved, flowers made a transition from bridal boas to auto garlands. Ergo, the Kleenex carnation of the 1950s and 60s!! My theory might be a bit flawed, but it serves the purpose.
The creation of these Kleenex carnations was a social event in itself. There were no “Carnations R Us” stores or surrogate carnation makers to hire. The design and creation of these little gems was an intense labor of love among hunky family members. I recall being drafted to assist in making these as a young boy. I believe it was for my cousin Joanne’s wedding to Ken. We had gathered at my Aunt Rose and Uncle Sam’s second floor apartment on Aurilles Street in Duquesne. We all sat huddled on their living room floor to begin the creative assembly line. There were those that pulled the Kleenex from the box and then flattened them. Then a person who’s job was to fanfold each individual tissue, fold them in half, tie them, cut them and then pass them on to the “shaper.” The shaper was a sculptor of sorts. They pulled apart the individual plys without tearing them in order to create the carnation. This was a pivotal role, and one earned only after serving years in an apprenticeship capacity. As a novice, my job for Joanne’s wedding carnations was to cut bits of string that were used to tie the Kleenex together after the folding process, a humble beginning, but a necessary step.
In those days, Kleenex didn’t offer many options in color. There was the basic white, pink, yellow and powder blue. If a bride had chosen any other color for the carnations another step was added to the creation process. Fingernail polish! Yep! The creation team would manage to tip each flower with the color choice of the bride using small bottles of fingernail polish. With several bottles open and being used at the same time, I swear we all can pretty close to getting high from the fumes!! All of our labor paid off on the wedding day.
The actual wedding ceremony at the church normally began early in the day. It was a very solemn event that would take place with a church that was packed full of family, friends, neighbors, curious onlookers and devout little old hunky studda bubbas would were practically permanent fixtures at every Mass that took place each day.
Proud fathers walked their daughters down the aisle toward the altar and their future husband as ladies in the congregation pulled their hankies from their pocketbooks to dry their eyes. The priest would celebrate the Mass, the bride would visit the statue of the Blessed Mother to ask for her blessing and eventually, the couple would exchange vows and rings and be pronounced “man and wife.” This of course, was back in the days before the use of “husband and wife” began. The bride and groom would kiss and then gleefully walk down the aisle as husband and wife.
While the ceremony took place, a group of family members or close friends would apply the Kleenex carnations to the bridal car that was awaiting the new Mr. & Mrs. The thought of using tape on a car today would send anyone into a tailspin, but back then, it didn’t seem to be an issue. Perhaps it was all the lead in the paint that helped to keep it from being affected by the tape. By the time the wedding party finished posing for group pictures, the bride and groom would emerge from the church in a shower of rice (yep, real rice!) Their car would be decorated to look like a float ready to enter the Rose Bowl parade on New Year’s Day! One always hoped for sunny days and warm weather in order to pull off this transformation of the bridal car, and usually God provided. It must have been Hunky Luck! With horns blaring and family waving, the wedding party was on their way to the next part of their wedding day, the wedding family breakfast.
Since the ceremony would take place hours before the reception began, the entire bridal party, along with many family members would come together for a fantastic breakfast, usually held at a church hall or similar location. Bacon, eggs, pancakes, and more were part of the menu and everyone would feast on the feast. This respite would allow everyone to re-energize and prepare for the most exciting part of the day’s festivities, THE WEDDING RECEPTION!!!
I often hear about Italian weddings, Jewish weddings, Greek weddings and the exciting event they profess to be, BUT, without a doubt, NOTHING compared to a good, old-fashioned HUNKY WEDDING reception! Different family traditions brought different variations of the long standing customs. However, the parts that were consistent at every hunky wedding were buffets, cookie tables, bridal dances, polkas and basically LOTS of laughing, dancing, eating, drinking, music and noise!
Inhibitions were lost at hunky wedding receptions. The purpose in attending was not to sit pristinely at a table and sip a glass of wine and elegantly cut into your prime rib or nosh on sushi while listening to chamber music. The purpose was to celebrate, and celebrate HARD! No one cared what you ate or how much you ate, no one cared that you may have celebrated a bit too much, no one cared that you didn’t possess the best rhythm while dancing and certainly, no one ever judged you when you cried as you danced with your daughter during the father-daughter dance.
The food feast that took place at the hunky wedding was as customary as the food that was part of the Slovak Vilija or Hebrew Sadder meal. “Chicki-Piggy-Rigi” pretty much describes the main components of chicken, stuffed cabbage and rigatoni, but there was so much more. You couldn’t forget the trays of sliced ham, sliced roast beef, cheeses, sandwich buns, garnish tray, dinner rolls and all types of condiments. Is it any wonder that these foods have become comfort food for hunkys?
As much as I enjoyed the main courses, NOTHING could compete with the cookie table however. I recall mounds and mounds of homemade cookies that were yours for the taking! I remember my mother had to constantly rein me in when it came to the cookie table, a job that my wife has now taken on. There was no such thing as a store bought cookies, then or even now. The goodies were prepared with loving hands by mothers, aunts, cousins, neighbors and just about anyone that wanted to be part of the celebration. I pride myself as being a veritable expert when it comes to cookies. They didn’t call me “cookie face” for nothing when I was growing up. My particular favorites were and still are cold dough apricot or poppyseed horns, lady fingers, raspberry sandwich cookies, pizzelles and those little thumbprint cookies made with jimmies and gobs of colored icing. The number of cookies was always disproportionate to the number of guests. I would estimate that each wedding reception attendee would have to consume at least three or four dozen cookies along with their meal. Sadly, due to the geographic constraints and an absence of near-by relations, my daughter (and ME) will miss out on the cookie table at her wedding in September. I might have to make a stop in the cookie aisle of my local supermarket on the way home from the wedding.
In my family, dancing was the part of the reception that we always looked forward to. As a child, I remember seeing my parents, aunt and uncles, and all the guests swirling around the floor whenever a Polka was played, which was about every other song. They would hoot and holler while they danced. Jackets were quickly shed and tossed by the men, and the ladies were constantly mopping their brow. The music that played was not only polkas but Big Band music as well. I remember being amazed at seeing my mom and dad dance. They were really, really good. I came to find out in later years, that my dad had actually taught dance when he was younger. As the evening wore on, dances such as the Csárdás (a.k.a. chardash), the Tarantella, the Mexican Hat Dance, the Viennese Waltz, and Zorba the Greek, etc. took place. We were a virtual United Nations of dance!!
That love of dancing hasn’t changed much, even today. The music and the dances may have, but the spirit of uninhibited joy hasn’t subsided at hunky weddings. When Abby is married in September this year the tried and true traditional dances and music will be resurrected, but a whole new wave of dances will be attempted by family and friends of all ages. We’ll attempt the electric slide, the cupid shuffle that will get everyone to the dance floor. Much to Abby’s chagrin, I’m sure will even attempt (embarrassingly so,) Psy’s GANGNAM style dance. I am sure it will be a rip-roaring hunky hell-raising affair, and I’ll remember it forever.
So many couples today are opting for upscale venues for their wedding; hotels, reception halls and a never ending assortment of places to celebrate are available. However, in Duquesne, things were quite simpler. Our venues consisted of the Slovak Club on Grant Ave, the Croatian Club (aka Cro Club) at the corner of Wilmont and Homestead Duquesne Rd., the VFW at the top 3rd Street and Duquesne Blvd., the K of C Hall on Pennsylvania Ave. in West Mifflin, and in later years, G & K Hall on Texas Ave. just across the Duquesne/West Mifflin line. So many wonderful events took place in those hallowed halls. If the walls could only talk……….
There was an event that occurred during every hunky wedding reception that would start the “waterworks” going for everyone attending the wedding. Toward the end of the event, the DJ or band director would announce the “Bridal Dance.” Almost instinctively, everyone would rise from their seats and form a line near the dance floor. One by one, each attendee would drop money into a basket being held by the maid of honor at the front of the line. Each guest would then join the bride for a few brief moments of dance in the center of the floor. Aunts, uncles, cousins, next-door neighbors, men, women, and children all took part in the Bridal Dance.
Once each person was finished with their brief moment with the bride, they would exit the dance floor. The adults were presented a tray that was held by the best man that was laden with shot glasses filled with bourbon. Ladies and gentlemen alike would silently toast the bride and groom and enjoy the offering before they left the floor.
As each adult and child finished their dance, they would also be handed a napkin wrapped slice of wedding cake. By tradition, you were supposed to take the cake and place it under your pillow that night. It was said that young ladies would dream of their future husbands and young men, of their future brides. For everyone else, I think the only outcome of sleeping on the cake was… crumbs?
The evening would culminate with the most emotional part of the Bridal Dance. The bride would have chosen a special song for the final Mother-Father-Daughter dance of the evening. After the bride would dance for a tear filled moment with her mother, a loving Dad would step forward to embrace his “little girl” and begin his special time to say goodbye to his daughter. There would rarely be a dry eye in the house by this time.
Eventually, a Daddy kissed his baby goodbye, her new husband would step forward to dance with his bride and eventually lift her into his arms and sweep her away to their new life together. The crowd that had remained gathered around the dance floor after the Bridal Dance would clap, cheer and part as the bride and groom would exit the dance floor and the reception to begin building their new life together.
After everyone dried their eyes, festivities would usually resume, toasts would continue to be made and by evening’s end, another WONDERFUL hunky wedding would come to a close. Could it get any better than this???
Here’s a bit of nostalgia for you…. remember the newspaper photos of brides and the elaborate write-ups?