I had the good fortune to be invited to three different weddings by three different sets of friends in Ukraine of the past few years. Each one was slightly different to the other, in terms of location and guest numbers, or the amount of expense spent on the big day. But they all shared the same wonderful traditions that make Ukrainian weddings so very special.
If you have not have the pleasure of ever attending a Ukrainian wedding, then I can say without a word of a lie that you’ve been missing out on one of the best days of eating, drinking and party revelry that goes on into the small hours of the morning….and in some cases, on into the next day.
Unlike the traditions that westerners are accustomed to (the bride not seeing the groom until she walks down the aisle, everyone waiting in the church, the typical five course meal), Ukrainian weddings (applicable to Russians too) are in the most part very informal, fun events.
It all starts off with the games that are played when the groom shows up at the brides home (typically her parents home) where the bridesmaids have laid out pieces of paper from the entrance of the apartment building up to the apartment itself. On these pieces of paper are questions that the groom must answer correctly. It’s not strictly the case to make the groom answer with/without the aid of his best-man and entourage in tow, but should he be unable to answer the question correctly, he must seek to bribe his way to the next question. This is where a large, and I mean VERY large, wad of money comes in handy.
The bridesmaids purposely make some questions difficult. For example, “How many steps are there from the lobby to the apartment floor your bride lives on?” Even if the groom counts them out and answers the question correctly, say 25, he is then told “Ok, now you must come up with 25 unique things that you love about your bride”. Other tricks used for example are, he may be shown a few photos of baby girls and he must say which one is his bride. If he guessed wrong, he must pay cash to pass this stair-well. (If the building has a lift it will be usually blocked by the bride’s team; but if the groom manages to find another way to the bride’s apartment than the stairs, it’s his right. He can climb up the wall or climb down from the roof – it would be much more fun but grooms are seldom that adventurous.) So it can be quite a tough intellectual task to get to the door of his bride. He can be also asked to sing, to dance or anything else. But eventually he will make it of course.
But it’s not so straightforward, because traditionally the groom must pay a ransom to get his bride. The bridesmaids protect the bride from getting “stolen” without a ransom. First, the groom offers something valuable, usually money or jewellery for the bride. The parents of the bride bring out a woman or man dressed as the bride and covered with a veil, so the groom can’t see her face. When the groom realizes that it is not his bride, he asks for his true love, and the family demands a bigger ransom because she is valuable. Once the ransom is negotiated, the bride’s family offers the bride to the groom.
If the bride’s parents meet the bridegroom at the door with a pumpkin, it means that his offer of marriage was not accepted by either the bride or by her family, and the pumpkin is something for him to carry, so that he doesn’t leave empty-handed.
So the groom is lucky and he leaves with his bride, not the pumpkin. All the village, or residents of the apartment block comes out to see the bride in her dress, and the wedding party will typically throw candy and small money for the children to chase after.
Nowadays there is no obligation to marry in a church. In fact the law requires you to register in a very simple registry office, which only takes 15 minutes to complete. The registry offices are typically very small, so it’s usually the bride and groom, their parents and witnesses who attend. Then afterwards the main event might take place in a church.
A church wedding is nothing like that experienced in a Catholic or Protestant church wedding. In fact it’s a very relaxed affair (for the guests at least). The guests all stand, (there are no seats available) and can come in and out of the church as often as they like. Friends of mine who married in the Orthodox Church took two hours to complete the ceremony. After which time my hand was going to fall off because I was asked to be my friends best-man and my job as best-man was to hold the crown above his head during the entire ceremony.
While the guests were coming and going, the priest was singing and conducting the ceremony, which incidentally involved walking around the altar three times, always holding the crown over the grooms head, and trying to trip and break something.
After the church or registry office, the married couple will usually drive to several key locations around the city for their wedding photo’s. There are about five or six “must do” locations across Kiev, and on any given weekend in the Spring/Summer you can see dozens of newlyweds wandering around these locations with the photographers and wedding party following close behind. One location in Kiev is the “Love Bridge”. The couple put a lock on the bridge and the key is taken home. But some prefer throwing the key into the river. Every year the couple goes to this bridge to check their lock. It’s a symbol of their love.
Nuptials sworn, it’s now time to really let your hair down. And man can they party. If you’re trying to lose weight, then getting invited to a Ukrainian wedding is NOT going to help you. Ukrainian food is one of the richest national cuisines. And at a wedding the food just keeps coming and coming and coming.
The reception will typically begin with the traditional serving of bread and salt. This is offered by both sets of parents and is supposed to represent a symbol of health, prosperity and long life. Both bride and groom must take a bite of the bread and the one that takes the largest bite will be the head of the family!
It will typically start off with about three or four different salads (Olivye, Vinigret, Shuba, Beetroot Salad, Potato Salad) with plates of sliced cured meats, like beef, pork, beef tongue, sometimes even horse. There is also a whole host of cured or smoked fish, fresh vegetables like sweet red onions, pickled tomatoes and cucumbers, kvashena kapusta (sweet pickled cabbage) and of course the prerequisite caviar to name but a few.
If your tummy is still not full after this lot, then you’re in store for a treat with Pelmeni and Vareniki (dumplings) served with cooked meats like roast duck and chicken, braised beef, Shaslyk (shish kebab) of pork and chicken, Holubtsi (cabbage rolls), Kovbasa (smoked ham sausage) and Kyshka (black pudding mixed with buckwheat).
Dessert follows with wedding cake and it’s all washed down throughout the evening with copious amounts of vodka, beer and wine. Of course, each glass of vodka is followed by a toast from the guests to the bride and groom, wishing them health, wealth and happiness together. It’s during the toasts that you begin to see Ukrainian tradition coming alive. After each toast, the guests sip their wine, then shout, “Gor’ko,” meaning bitter. It’s up to the couple to sweeten the wine — by kissing. Needless to say, guests indulge in this tradition after each and every toast, and ultimately wrangle a lot of kissing from the couple. which is to egg the happy couple to kiss one another as long as the chanting carries on.
The games from the earlier part of the day follow through into the evening. There is usually a point in time where the bride is kidnapped and held captive until the groom carries out some dares, like drinking vodka from her shoes. Other games include the maid of honour passing around boxes coloured blue or pink and asking the guests to put money into the box depending on whether they think the couple will have a boy or girl as their first child. Or when things really liven up, the bridesmaids may steal the brides shoes demanding a ransom from the groom.
After the feasting and partying the newlyweds will want to “rest”. A bath-house, a barn, or even a cattle-shed could play the role of their bedroom. The wife would take off her husband’s boots, demonstrating her obedience, and to hand him a lash. The husband’s duty is to make sure he put money in his boots in advance. The money came to the wife to indicate that he would take care of the her and feed her. When accepting the lash, the husband gently struck his wife three times in order to strike her never more in their family life.
All in all it’s an event that is full of humour, tradition, culture and folklore. It’s a day that requires one to pace oneself so that you can last the course which will continue well into the night, but you will not leave hungry and will look forward to the next wedding you get invited to.