Wedding Traditions from Russia
Traditional Russian weddings are very different from the typical Western wedding. There are no engagement rings, and generally, no official engagement, just a waiting period. Once two people decide to marry, they apply to the department of registrations asking to officially register their marriage. They are given dates when the registrar is available. There is a mandatory one month waiting period, but the registrar may not be available for several months. In general, people are not informed about the “engagement” event excepting their closest friends and family, and announcement is saved for the wedding invitation.
This being the case, wedding are often planned within 1-3 months, and fortunately for that time period do not include many of the traditions we are used to seeing. However, this does not mean that the event is not a highly celebrated event. A Russian wedding is full of traditional elements and laughter. They are events like no other, and can often last two days.
The first day has several parts to it, the ransom for the bride, the official ceremony at the registrar, the church ceremony and the reception.
Ransom for the Bride
The bride’s family and friends gather at her home, while the groom at his group of friends and family meet him at his home in order to accompany him to go and pick up the bride-to-be. The groom comes to the bride’s home with his friends and relatives, but in order to get to the bride, he has to face several challenges, questions and in pay a ransom to the bride’s entourage.
Although there are not the traditional bridesmaids, groomsmen, ring bearers or flower girls, there are witnesses on both the bride and groom’s side who carry quite a bit of responsibility and have a large role to play in the success of the event. Their main responsibility in the ransom process is to prepare and place people in his path that will make his way a challenge. They prepare posters that are posted along the path from his house to hers, and in every stairwell, elevator and doorway, they must place a bride’s family or friend who will present a challenging question to the groom about the bride. Each challenge or question is played out as a joke and the goal is to have the best sense of humor.
He must, however, have given himself spare time before the appointment at the registrar’s office, as he will have to fight to get the bride. No matter where he finds someone from the bride’s family or friends, he must answer a question to be allowed to pass. Team work is allowed, and the groom, his family or his friends can answer. If he is unable to answer the question, he has to pay to pass that obstacle. If he can find his way around the obstacle, that is his right, but not nearly as fun unless he can add some humor.
When he arrives, he is required to pay a ransom to the bride’s family, so he must plan his coins wisely. Once he finally has the bride in his possession, his way is not yet clear. On the way from the house to the car, the groom has to deal with the neighbors and kids who all want coins and candy, which he is expected to have on him. In return they solute the couple and sprinkle them with rice & coins.
There is a much anticipated wedding train of cars that carries the bride, groom and their families and friends to the registrar’s office. Black cars are considered a luxury in Russia, due to their availability for government elite during the Soviet reign, and one will often see at least the brides’ car in this style. As cars are not common in Russia, the more cars in the train, the ritzier the wedding is considered. It is common for the couple to ask all of their friends who have cars to be in the procession.
Official Ceremony at the Registrar’s Office
After finally in the cars, they go for the marriage registration. The wedding train picks up the couple and drives them to the registrar’s office for the official ceremony. Bride and groom typically ride in separate cars. All the cars are decorate and often the brides’ car has a doll on the hood or two rings (the two crossed golden rings are Russia’s symbol of marriage and one will see them repeated in many aspects of the celebration).
Ceremony at the registrar’s is called “brakosochetanie.” The bride & groom exchange rings and put signatures in the registry. The documents are also signed by witnesses. Once might also witness the registrar saying a few words, the playing of Mendelssohn’s wedding march, and those who are present (usually only immediate family and the closest friends) giving short toasts, presenting gifts and flowers to the bride, and the pouring of champagne. This ceremony is the recognized legal marriage and even if the couple opts for a church ceremony, they still must perform the signing at the registrar’s office before the church wedding in order to be legally married.
If the couple opts for a church ceremony where their friends and family can be witness to their marriage, it is often done in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and they can run anywhere from 30-120 minutes in length. Many couples opt out of a church ceremony altogether or shorten the traditional service, as there is often only standing room for many of the guests.
Some of the more notable traditions in this service are that during ceremony, the couple stands under crowns held by their witnesses. Traditionally, Russian brides have also worn a headdress of pearls and flowers, rather than a veil, and made their own dresses to show their ability to take care of a home. Rings are exchanged during the ceremony and are often plain bands of gold. One will not likely see the exchange of engagement rings, and it should be noted that wedding bands are worn on the right hand in Russia. At the end of the ceremony, the couple is crowned, at which point they race to see who can be the first to reach a white rug placed at the back of the church. Whoever stands on the rug first was traditionally considered the more dominant partner in the relationship.
In some parts of Russia, the couple will depart the ceremony for a tour of the city sites to honor those who are gone, lay flowers at memorial sites, and respect their elders. They will then proceed to the reception.
A typical setup of a Russian reception will throw you for a bit of a loop if you are used to the ballrooms filled with round tables. Most often tables are arranged in a Russian “T” (or what we would consider a U-type shape). The couples and their witnesses sit at the top, next to them the parents, then their closest friends and family. After these seats have been reserved, guests may sit wherever they choose.
The reception starts with a toast to the new couple, by the witnesses. It is customary for the bride and groom to drink three times from the same cup of wine, which symbolizes their willingness to sample the same cup of experience. Then the parents give toasts, and one will often hear the toast of “Za molodykh” or ‘for the newlyweds.” Everyone who is present can give toasts, so there are many toasts that get made. Once someone gives a toast, they present their gift to the couple, which is often money. During the toasting, although everyone is seated, only appetizers are served. The meal is not traditionally served until after the dancing has begun.
The witness’s job truly comes into play during the reception. They run the show from the moment the first guest enters until the dancing begins. They must prepare a script for the evening, that includes speeches, a schedule, contests, jokes, poems, and questions to ask the couple. There are many ready to use scripts that can be found, or the witnesses can choose to compose their own. The goal is that everyone must be having fun and be highly entertained. There must not be a lull in the evening’s entertainment.
Throughout the night, one will hear many toasts, such as “Gor’ko! Gor’ko!” which means bitter. In answer to this toast, and to make the vine sweet, the couple must kiss each other. They kiss for as long as possible, while the crowd counts! If they do not kiss long enough the crowd can demand a longer kiss. This tends to happen after almost every toast, so if you are planning a Russian wedding for yourselves, get ready to do a lot of kissing! Once the toasts stop, any remaining gifts are collected by the witnesses.
Then, the dancing begins with the first dance. As the music goes on, the jokes on the groom continue. At some point, the bride gets stolen by the groom’s friends. When the groom goes looking for her, he has to pay a ransom to get her back. She can be stolen multiple times, however, so the groom must be wise in his bargaining! His shoe can get stolen by the bride’s friends, and you guessed it, he must pay a ransom to get it back.
When the music stops, the main course is served. Wedding cake is not typically served, but the given to the guests to take home at the end of the reception. The tradition of favors is very likely one that stemmed from Russian tradition, and comes from the believe that guests should be showered with gifts when they do you the favor of coming to your home or party.
What is the biggest concern at a Russian wedding? Why running out of liquor, of course!
For those who choose to continue the celebration into the second day, there is often a party held at the couple’s new home the day after. Today, we see this in the tradition of the wedding brunch or the gift-opening luncheon. However, in Russia, in order to gain back the many ransoms paid out on the day of the wedding, guests are not given knives, forks or spoons. Sometimes they are not even given glasses. They must buy things (or borrow them, in fact, as they won’t be taking them home) in order to eat and drink.
Fewer guests are invited for the second day, and much less food is served. Often soups such as borsch (bettroot soup) or ukha (soup of fresh water fish with potatoes and onions) are served, as they are excellent remedies for a hangover. One might also see pelmeni (a dish much like ravioli) served as the main course. After the meal, the bride must clean the floor as a symbolic acceptance of her responsibility to the marriage, however, guest are welcome to mess up the floor with coins or banknotes to assist with their start on their new life.
What traditions do you have to add?
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