Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a match, Find me a find, and catch me a catch. Matchmaker, Matchmaker look through your book, and make me a perfect match…
Most people would recognise these words as having been sung with reference to Yente, the village matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof.
In Malta, as in many other cultures, including the aforementioned Jewish one, it was once customary for matchmakers to ply their trade – indeed, it was considered their “job”, just as others earned money by pairing off people and houses.
It all began when the father of a nubile young lady placed a pot of basil (or mint) on the right side of the window-sill, and a flowering carnation plant on the left-hand side. This signified that in that household there was someone who could earn a pretty penny for the ħuttaba – the Maltese matchmaker of yore.
Young lads would try and catch a glimpse of the young lady in question – but they had a habit of holding a veil in place across half their face with their teeth (mustaxija) – and this made it somewhat difficult.
Of course, the girls would nonetheless look coyly around, just in case a suitable suitor was within a radius of sixty miles – and the ones who were looking to get married might have worn a red cloak and a carnation behind their ear – rather than a cigarette.
The youth would woo her by making sure she knew he was in the general area of her house, come nightfall. Sometimes, to make his presence more obvious he would rope in a friend, and they would serenade her. If he saw a curtain twitch, he would know his mission would be – almost – accomplished. The young lady just might be interested in him… and even if she were not, sometimes this did not even matter. .
And that is where the matchmaker’s job came in. Her (for it was usually a woman) stock-in-trade involved painting a ravishing picture of the girl’s future if she married this chap, to the girl’s father. If more than one man was interested in the girl, the father would try to get the best deal, at the least expense to himself (when he came to pay for the matchmaker’s services).
The young lady herself had no say in her betrothal. She only got to send the fellow a white satin handkerchief, to signify that she was still a virgin. In some dire cases, she did not even meet her intended groom until a handful of days before the wedding.
The first meeting happened rather as if it were a broker’s deal. The young man, and the girl’s parents (or the father, alone) and the matchmaker, met… mainly so that the prospective husband could post a solemn promise that he would take his bride to the traditional three feasts that it was expected of him to do so – l-Imnarja, (Saints Peter and Paul), when racing meets were held near Verdala Castle, at Buskett; San Girgor (Saint Gregory) and San Gwann (Saint John), the feast in which animal races were held in Valletta, on the road leading to the Upper Barrakka.
It was held that a woman ought to wear her wedding dress on these three occasions – something some women could not do, since by the time the first obligation came around, they would already be pregnant. Here it must be said that the Church forbade marriages below the fourth degree of consanguinity, and that when a young lady was still unmarried in her twenties, she was considered well on the way to becoming an old maid. It was the custom for the eldest daughter to be married off first.
The matchmaker also had to see that the agreements about the dowry were duly made. The father of the bride, if he was well off, was duty bound to provide the main bedroom (ta’ l-għamara) – some land for farming, if it was available, and some gold. The Kitba (writ) was duly signed at the Notary’s offices as soon as possible. Broken engagements held the threat of Excommunication.
On the day of the wedding, it was the practice for the bridal party to call at the bride’s house, pick up some cooked fowls (usually chicken), and take it with them, to be eaten at the reception, along with all the other food… mostly sweetmeats and fresh fruit.
It was almost unheard of for a bride to marry (or live!) outside her parish – so arrangements were made for a canopy to be provided, underneath which the bride walked, and everyone else followed her in procession. Musicians played, and a man with raffia crate full of sweets and sugared almonds handed some to the people who stood on the pavements to watch the parade.
In some parishes, the groom arrived at the church only to find the doors closed. When the bride got there too, they knelt together, holding a lighted candle – and the doors were opened. Some parish priests even went as far as to make the couple promise to recite the Rosary every day for at least two years, and to go to confession at least once a fortnight. As the cynic said, then “they married for procreation and not recreation”.