Zwar > Historic Archives

Barossa Valley Customs

Reflecting on Customs and Traditions in the Barossa Valley, South Australia

by Mavis Jericho, a grand daughter of Peter Zwar.

[Used with permission. First printed in ‘Koch Connections’]

Seasons of the Year in Reverse

Upon arriving in South Australia our forefathers were soon recognised as industrious people who were capable managers able to sustain themselves and their families.

They brought their customs and traditions with them, but how different it must have been for them to have the temperatures of the seasons of the year in reverse: adapting to celebrating Christmas in the hottest season of the year and all other Church Festivals also occurring in different conditions.

The seasons of the year very much governed their lives, their work and what food they ate. Long before refrigeration they were very accomplished at preserving fruit and vegetables and also meats. This was done by salting, drying and fermentation. The German settlers were famous for their mettwurst, smoked hams and bacon, pickled pork, sauerkraut and dill cucumbers. Vegetables were served with a glazed sauce and cabbage prepared with a sweet and sour flavour. Grated cucumber salad with cream and beans in a butter sauce, were a great combination with roasts.

Making noodles was a weekly task and these were spread to dry for several days on paper on a spare table, this was often on the dining room table as during the week the family ate in the kitchen.

As the seasons changed so did their diets. The first cucumbers and beans were very much looked forward to and there was always some peer competition as to who could pick the first for the season. Likewise the cabbages and turnips as winter approached.

The Social Life


The social life of our forefathers was very closely interwoven with their church life. A strong Christian ethic was observed in the homes and Father and Mother always made time to have a devotional reading and prayer after breakfast before they commenced the day’s work. At night after the evening meal, Father would again gather the family and lead in devotion and prayer. Mother would make sure the children sat to attention and showed the respect expected of them.


Monday to Saturday were days of toil but Sunday was the Lord’s Day and tools were hung up. After attending church, large family gatherings were very much part of their lives. Much preparation had to be done the day before and sometimes it was necessary for perhaps a teenage daughter to stay home from church to make sure the meat didn’t burn or the fire die back too much. The women gathered in the kitchen with their Sunday best aprons to prepare the large pots of vegetables and pot roasted meat and, of course, the ever popular noodle soup. Baked rice or sago puddings as well as steamed puddings and piemelon pies were popular for dessert.

While the women toiled (somehow this was not considered to be working on a Sunday), the men gathered in the parlour or, in summer, under the verandah and often enjoyed a cigar or puffs on the pipe while discussing their week’s work or market prices. The weather was a popular topic and signs of rain were discussed and whether the age old tradition of seven sleepers (Siebenschlafer) would apply that particular year. If it rained on the 27th of June one could expect rain for the next seven weeks or, if fine on that day, fine weather could be expected for the next seven weeks.

Sunday Dinner

When the women had reached agreement that the soup had enough salt and vegetables and the right amount of seasoning, all were called to the dining room where the table was laid with its pure white starched tablecloth and matching serviettes, all neatly ironed and folded. The head of the house was called upon to say Table Grace before the first spoon was raised. Soup was served in bowls with a wide brim, which made them easy to carry, and vegetables were served in large bowls and passed to each other. When all agreed that they couldn’t possibly eat any more the hosts again asked for attention to Return Thanks to God for the meal and pray for protection from harm and a sudden or violent death.

Dishes were gathered and a large tin wash-up dish was placed on the kitchen table together with a metal tray to act as a drainboard. The task of washing the dishes was once again a combined effort by the women while animated discussions on ideas on cooking, fashions and problems of the day were shared.


Meanwhile the men had disappeared to walk and inspect the farmyard, a nearby crop, or share ideas in the workshop. For the women, if it was fine weather, a stroll through the garden was the usual form of entertaining the guests. Seeds and cuttings were often shared and discussions on which variety of vegies was best and which was the best time to plant or sow. Many believed in following phases of the moon. For all vegetables that grew below ground ie carrots, potatoes etc. plant or sow after full moon and what yielded above ground was sown or planted after the new moon.

If the weather was raining or too cold, women often got out family photos and admired fashions of years gone by. Men played cards and children, snakes and ladders etc., but if the weather was fine, the children much preferred to play outside, such games as hide and seek and sliding down the haystack.


Visitors often only got home as the darkness had set in. Tired children were put to bed and kerosene lanterns lit. Pigs had to be fed and cows milked, horses fed and the chook yard gate closed.


Washing Day

Monday was the day set aside to do the washing. The large tub and washboards were brought into the kitchen, or if available, to a sheltered spot under the back verandah. Later, hand-plunger washing machines came into vogue with hand turned wringers. Coppers were lit and water heated and the whites were boiled as well as towels and of course the nappies. The last rinsing water always contained Reckitt’s blue. This came in a compounded cube, which was placed in a calico bag or, in some homes, in a child’s outgrown sock.


Ironing was done with coal irons and as clothes were folded ready for ironing, they were slightly sprinkled with water to ensure a smooth finish, especially for the starched items. Large items of linen were rolled through a heavy mangle operated by two people. Babies nappies were either also passed through the mangle or ironed. An old wives tale was that if a baby suffered with colic, it was an obvious sign that the nappies had not been ironed to squeeze out the air bubbles.


Bathrooms were non-existent, showers unheard of and baths not all that frequent either. Saturday night a long bathtub was carried into the kitchen and stood before the stove and one by one the family all washed in the same water, just adding an extra dipper full of hot water as it cooled. The routine was usually from the youngest to the oldest or the most grubby.


Births usually occurred in the family home with an experienced Birth Mother (with no official training, only with the practical knowledge she had gained over the years) and sometimes a Doctor, if available, and provided he could be got there in time. Births in hospitals in the country communities gradually became the accepted practice during the 1920’s, with encouragement from local Doctors.

The first time that the mother and the newborn infant were permitted to venture out of the home was on the occasion of the Baptism. The mother was expected to wear a black dress and black hat: to do otherwise would have been frowned upon.


Confirmation Instructions began when young people were about 14 years old. Many hymns, psalms and Bible verses were memorised by the young Confirmees. As the time for completion of their course drew near, hand?written invitations were sent to the Godparents, thanking them for their support over the years and inviting them to come and witness their public Oral Examination in church before the parents and congregation; usually a week or so before Confirmation. At the conclusion of the examination the Pastor would then present the candidates for Confirmation and the Elders were asked if they felt the young people were sufficiently instructed to be accepted for Confirmation as Communing Members of the church. Girls wore white dresses and a white floral wreath in their hair and stockings for the first time. Boys for the first time wore suits with long trousers and a small floral buttonhole. Boys until then only ever wore shorts or knee?length pants to church.


Weddings were momentous occasions and many weeks of preparations preceded the days of celebrations. As families and friends from scattered parts gathered, the celebrations often continued for several days after the actual wedding ceremony. In the months prior to the marriage, friends of the bridal couple would arrange feather?picking nights. Bags of feathers were kept from geese, fowls and turkeys, which had been killed during the year. Also feathers plucked from live geese prior to moulting were painstakingly stripped from the quills by hand to make the filling for the downy featherbed quilt and pillows for the bridal couple. These evenings were popular and provided our youth with much fun and entertainment and many stories are told of some of the high jinks that happened on these nights. Imagine the clean up afterwards: not all feathers would have found their way into the bedding (no vacuum cleaners then!). No doubt many future romances had their beginnings at these nights as well.

The bridal parties were usually large at the turn of the last century and the gowns were home sewn. Food preparations were major undertakings. Meat was home?slaughtered, pickled and smoked and kuchen baked by the brick?oven full. Receptions were held at the brides’ homes and, if a room within the house was not large enough, barns were often cleaned and decorated. If the guest list was large, it was quite common to have several sittings.

In the Barossa a custom developed to stretch a rope across the roadway to hold up the bridal vehicle ? this was a signal for the couple to hand out a bottle of wine to the people holding the rope. This custom is still practised at some weddings.

Another custom was known as ‘Polter Abend’ (tin kettling) when the night before the wedding the local young lads and some not so young, crept up on the bridal home and on cue would create a deafening din with empty buckets, tin tubs, horns, shotguns and what ever else made a noise. They would not let up until the bride and groom served them kuchen, wine and coffee. The Button Accordion was often used as musical accompaniment to the singing of toasts. Recitations were also popular entertainment. It was quite common to pass around an Offering Plate during the Reception and the hosts would announce to where it would be given: either Seminary Colleges or Mission Work.


When a death had occurred, the church bell was tolled the following morning after the death had occurred. This helped the news to reach the congregation. Funeral Services started from the home of the deceased. A viewing was held usually in what was known as the front room (what we now know as our lounge room). Mourners greeted family members as they surrounded the coffin. Women were dressed in sombre black dresses, hats, sometimes veils and black stockings. The men wore black ties and black armbands around their suit sleeves and hat bands. A short service outside the front door of the home preceded the journey to the cemetery. The bearers wore black top hats and a black wooden cross, draped with black ribbons, was carried aloft, ahead of the coffin to the burial site. The honour of carrying the cross was usually given to a newly confirmed youth. The burial took place before the memorial service in church, as in those days with no refrigeration facilities, it wasn’t always possible to have the coffin in close confines within the church. The homes were always heavily scented with flowers such as violets and stocks. The burial was followed by a service in church and the obituary was read and an address given by the Pastor. After the memorial service, relatives and friends were invited to gather at the home of the deceased and share in a spread of afternoon tea. The food usually consisted of open sandwiches with mettwurst, cheese, and dilled cucumbers and, of course, streusel kuchen, baked by the slides?full. After the ordeal of the sombre funeral, this was a time for focussing on other thoughts and there was usually a favourite uncle or cousin who could tell a humorous tale or two.

Just the coming together of distant relatives was a treasured time.


With the coming of Christmas, homes were meticulously ‘Spring cleaned’. Food preparations began in advance with the making of the traditional honey biscuits and sweet treats. Apart from food preparations, children saw few visible signs of the coming event. Somehow parents always managed to have placed a delightfully decorated Christmas tree and wrapped parcels, without the children knowing about them. Christmas Eve began with a service in the church during which the children of the Sunday School presented a programme with the telling of the Christmas Story. Gifts were given to the children as well as a bag of sweets but they were anxious to get home as memories of previous years led them to believe more surprises lay ahead. Children were delighted and parents quietly pleased that they had once again managed to surprise them. The next two days were again begun with a church service. What we now call Boxing Day was known as Second Christmas Day. Family dinners always followed with a sumptuous tea of cold meats and salads and plates of fancy cakes, cream puffs, jam tarts and kuchen.

New Year

New Year’s Eve also had people attending church and then, at midnight, the Church Bell was tolled on the hour and continued into the New Year for several minutes. Another service would then be held on New Year’s Day.


Parties and weddings were not held during the time of Lent so the week after Easter saw many weddings take place, as even Easter Saturday was considered most unsuitable. Palm Sunday being the beginning of Holy Week, once more women dressed in black as they had for Good Friday. A number of churches held an afternoon service in addition to the morning service on Good Friday. The theme was the burial of Christ and after the reading of the Passion Story, when Christ bowed his head and died, the bell would be tolled during the singing of a funeral hymn and then remain silent until sunrise on Easter Morning when, together with all other church bells in the Valley, it once again rang out its chimes. Services were also held on Easter Monday.


Family dinners were part of the Easter Celebrations with either a roast goose or turkey. Children were encouraged to make Easter Bunny nests. In the homes of German families the bearer of Easter Eggs was known as the Easter Hare (Oster Hase). These nests were often made in the straw stacks or in the flower garden. Children would be up early to see if the Easter Hare had been.

Pig Killing

Some families specialised in pig killing and would go to others farms to help with the slaughtering when they decided that their pig was big and fat enough. Nothing was wasted. Blood was saved for the Black Pudding (Blutwurst) and the intestines cleaned for sausage casings. The casing for mettwurst was kept from sheep and salted down throughout the year. Bacon, hams, mettwurst, black pudding, lieberwurst and kerosene tins full of lard were considered a necessity to the year’s supply of food. When the lard was rendered and the last drops of lard squeezed from the hot crunchy cubes they were cooled and then minced. This was known as Grieben, a favourite spread on bread with a sprinkle of salt or a dash of tomato sauce.

Women were very involved in sausage making and the cutting up of meat, but it had its problems. There was a strong belief in another old wives tale that if a woman was menstruating she must not touch the meat or work amongst it.


Shopping for farmers’ wives was mostly combined with market days when the men went to town. Women seldom had access to independent transport. Home deliveries were common and was a service provided by the local store.


Certain days of the week were set aside for baking, cleaning and mending. Saturday afternoon, the Sunday clothes were checked to make sure that they were clean enough for church the next day. Family shoes were gathered and given a thorough clean and polish. Very often Sunday School memory work was learnt during this activity


Special Anniversary Church Services were held throughout the year for Youth, Sunday School, Women’s Guild and Harvest. Mission Festivals were held in all congregations and much inter visiting took place to hear speakers from Mission Fields. This was the opportunity to hear about the work they were supporting.

Men and women always sat on opposite sides of the aisle in church: men on the left and women to the right. This custom continued in some churches until the early 1950s.

Since life for us is so different now, much of what they did may seem strange, but let us remember it was right for society at that time. Christian and Family ethics were strong and we pray that our descendants will be able to say the same of our time.

©  Mavis Jericho