Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cultural Wedding Traditions

Deciding on which traditions to incorporate into any wedding is difficult especially when both families are rich in cultural history. My fiancée has a Norwegian background so we have been doing some research to incorporate some Norwegian traditions. My family mainly hails from Russia and there are many folk traditions for weddings but not many modern traditions that we would care to bring over.

Here's a little taste of a traditional Norwegian Wedding;

Traditionally the groom wears a hand-made woolen suit known as a bundas. The bundas has a white silk shirt, short pants and stockings that come up to the calf, a vest and topcoat. The bundas is covered with intricate and colorful designs. Each design is unique to the district of Norway where the groom was born, or where the groom’s ancestors came from. Many people think the bundas makes a man look like a Norwegian prince.

Groomsmen and the best man traditionally wear their bundas as well. Bundas come in a variety of colors, giving the wedding a traditional as well as colorful look and feel.

The bride traditionally wears a white or silver wedding gown. The bride will also wear a silver or silver and gold crown. Dangling around the crown will be small spoon-shaped bangles. When the bride moves her head the bangles produce a melodic tinkling music. Norwegian tradition holds that the music from the bride’s bangles will ward off evil spirits. During the wedding reception after the wedding the bride will dance vigorously, the tinkling melody of the bangles will scare off the evil spirits which try to inhabit the happy bride.

Tradition also holds that the bridesmaids, dressed similarly (but not the same) as the bride will confuse any evil spirits and further help protect the bride from evil influences.

Music is very important at a Norwegian wedding. Often Norwegian weddings will use the traditional Norwegian tune “Come to the Wedding” and often the happy couple will be escorted out of the church after the ceremony to the music of the accordion.

At the conclusion of the ceremony the bride and groom exchange gold or silver wedding rings and the traditional wedding kiss, which symbolically seals the relationship between the husband and his wife. The round ring, with no beginning and no end traditionally represents never-ending love and the kiss historically represents the exchange of a portion of each other’s souls.

A lavish wedding reception follows the wedding ceremony. At the reception there are many, many speeches as guests and family wish the new couple much happiness, and there is a great deal of music and dance as well. The tables at the reception are often decorated with blokaker (layer) cake or with a “brudlaupskling” wedding cake which is a flour cake covered with a mixture of cheese, cream and syrup.

Now for the Russian wedding traditions;

The Dowry [Posag or pridannoe]

While it was the mothers who arranged the matching of bride and groom, it was the fathers who worked out the financial arrangements of the dowry. While the Church remained silent on the issue of dowries, they were very important to the people themselves because they gave the woman an independent means of support. In Russia, a woman kept full control over her dowry. This situation allowed her tremendous autonomy, as these dowries were far from pittances.

The dowry usually consisted of one-quarter of her father's worth. Usually, half of this amount was kept in currency and the other half in valuables (e.g., gold, silver, pearl, dishes, clothes, horses, carriages, servants, etc.). If the woman had no brothers, the dowry might even include land. The oral agreement of the dowry between the fathers ended the period of "courtship."

Formal Acceptance [Sgovor]

The next step of the betrothal was the "acceptance." On a pre-arranged day, the groom-to-be came to his betroth's home "in a clean shirt" in the company of his father or older brother. they were met by the girl's father who sat them down in the hearth, on the house's best benches (the bride-to-be, however, stayed out of sight). The contractual documents, outlining the intent to wed and the specifics of the dowry were presented and signed. No priest was present at this event (although if both parties were illiterate, a clerk might be present). The sgovor had no religious meaning, but was merely a business transaction. After the signing, gifts were exchanged and the girl's father presented the house's icon for the guests to kiss. The party then moved into the back room -- an inner waiting room where the women, being usually segregated from the men, were gathered (except the future bride herself who was not allowed to be present) -- to meet the fiancee's mother and to congratulate her. She kissed the fiance and her ladies in turn followed her example. The ritual completed, the guests departed.

Inspection [Smotriny]

A few days later, the boy's mother came to the bride's home for the "inspection" to ascertain the character and chastity of the girl. Upon passing her approval, the boy's mother gave the fiancee a ring. Later, she might also send the girl a cross, some fruit, and some headwear for the servants.

The Church Variant of Courtship

There is another sequence of events suggested in historical documents. The Church did not approve of having betrothals take place outside of the Church and demanded that the sgovor and the exchanging of rings take place in a Church and be sanctified by a priest. As Levin explains, betrothals were often treated as granting official permission to fornicate. The Church felt, for its part, that if couples were going to have sex before marriage then it might as well make the betrothals as binding as the marriage itself: "The church held that a vow before God and witnesses should be upheld; a formal promise to marry was binding upon both parties."

The Bride's Bath [Bania] and the Maiden's Party [Devichnik]

Many of the pre-crowning ceremonies centered around the bride. One of these ceremonies was the washing of the bride, which was used for casting a spell over her future husband, so that he would love her forever:

Shortly before the wedding, it was common to arrange a ritual bath [bania]. The preservation of the pre-Christian customs associated with 'charmed water' in tenth to fifteenth-century wedding rituals is explained by the desire of the bride to win the love and affection of her future spouse by means of magical rituals. After the bride's ritual ablution, the 'charmed water' was carefully saved and given to the husband to drink after the wedding.

Although the Church was strongly opposed to this practice (due to its pagan roots), there are indications that it survived into the sixteenth century.

Another pre-wedding custom was the "maiden's party" -- a sort of medieval bachelorette party -- where the women gathered with the bride the night before the wedding. At this time it was traditional to remove the girl's headcovering [kokoshnik] and comb out her hair. Her single tress (the symbol of maidenhood in medieval Russia) was braided for the last time.

Members of the Wedding Party and Costuming

At this point, we should note the various members of the wedding party. On the three days of the actual wedding ceremony, the bride and the groom were treated like royalty and addressed as such, being known respectively as the "young princess" and the "young prince." They were given suitable retainers for the roles. On the "prince's" side, there was a "captain" [tysiatskii], the groom's mother [svakha], a best man [druzhka], and a chamberlain [spal'nik]. On the "princess's" side, there was her mother [svakha], a "bridesmaid" (who could be a man) [also called a druzhka] and a chambermaid [postel'nichii]. Traditionally, there were also two priests, to match the duality of all the other members, who stood side-by-side facing their charges during the church service and officiated the events in the bride's or the groom's home respectively.

Russian brides in the sixteenth century wore red and not white. The traditional women's outfit (in late period at least) was a red sarafan with gold trim and a golden maiden's crown. The bride was also veiled the whole day -- an act done as much for keeping her concealed from the groom as for its more explicit ancient purpose of protecting her from evil. Even in their bed on the first night together, she continued to wear her veil and was not allowed to speak. It was best, noted Fletcher if the groom did not see her face until the second day and did not speak to her until the end of the third day. The bride who obeyed these rules won deep respect from her new husband.

Aside from these directions about bridal costuming, little is known about what the others wore (except that the groom should wear a "clean shirt"). One has to assume that most people wore their standard (good) clothes for the occasion.

Pre-Wedding "Feast"

The trip to the church occurred in the afternoon and was proceeded by a small feast, actually two feasts held separately -- one at the groom's house (for his guests) and one at the bride's (for hers). While everyone ate, the servants at the groom's house prepared the horses. As the feasting started to wind down, the best man asked the groom's father for permission for the party to depart and went to the groom's mother (or matchmaker) to announce that the "young prince" was ready to go to his bride.

The best man, by himself, went to the bride's home. As mentioned above, a separate (but similar) feast was taking place at the bride's home, but whereas the groom had taken part in his feast and held a place of honor at the head table, the bride was not allowed to even be present at hers as she had to prepare for the day's events. As soon as the best man arrived at the house, he entered the feast hall. He bowed individually to each of the people present (and they in turn bowed to him and each other). After completing this task, the best man announced that the groom was ready and then returned home.

Upon the return of the best man, the groom's mother set out to the bride's home where she went directly to the room where the bride was preparing. She blessed her and might even have helped her dress. After the bride had been dressed, she and her servants entered the feast hall, where both of her parents and the priest blessed her. The priest then departed to prepare the ceremony and the bridesmaid was sent to invite the groom and his family to the bride's home.

The Groom Goes to the Bride's Home

The bridesmaid gave the invitation to the captain who reported to the groom's father, asking him to bless his son. The father put a cross around the son's neck and his mother gave her son his ring (as you may recall, she already gave the bride her ring during the inspection). The groom's party could now set out for the bride's house. Not all of the guests were required to come along and some of them stayed at home to continue feasting. The party which did set out was constituted in the following order: candlebearers, the priest with a cross, the best man, other members of the procession (in order of age) and followed up at the end by the groom and his captain (who stayed on the groom's right-hand side).

The party was met at the bride's home by the bridesmaid. The groom and his captain were obliged to kneel in all four directions upon entering the house, as a sign of respect. Until the bride was ready, the party remained in an antechamber.

The "Hair Winding" [Okruchivanie]

Meanwhile, the bride (coming from one of the back rooms) entered a "middle" room between where she was and where the groom was. Although it is not stated explicitly, apparently the guests were allowed to have already situated themselves in this middle room. The bride entered with a round loaf of bread (called a karavai) and cheese. Servants also carried in money. Altogether, these items were intended to symbolize wealth and prosperity. The groom came in after she had been seated and sat next to her. On her other side sat a male relative of the bride, preferably a younger brother.

The last ritual before the crowning -- the "hair winding" --took place at this time. The groom's mother asked the bride's parents for permission for the "combing." While the groom's hair was also combed, the ceremony was intended mostly to undo the bride's single tress and rebraid her hair into two braids (the symbol of marriage). During the braiding, the bridesmaid busied herself by slicing the karavai and the cheese. She offered it (in the name of the bride) to the groom and to each of the guests. According to Fletcher, the consumption of a single loaf by everyone was intended to signify the joining of all into oneness. When the braiding was finished, the couple was showered with money and hops by the groom's mother.

Crowning [Venchanie]

The bridesmaid asked the bride's father to bless the couple again and then the groom took the bride by the hand and led her to the sleigh (or carriage) which had been covered with rich material -- giving us an early parallel to the modern habit of decorating the couple's car. The bride sat in the chief place and around her sat the best man and the bridesmaid. The groom, captain, and guests traveled separately to the church. The bride's parents stayed at home. The sleigh passengers, when they arrived at the church, did not walk on the naked ground, but on a long length of damask cloth running from the foot of the sleigh into the church. Interestingly enough, the Domostroi advises using two shorter bolts, which can be picked up and placed in front of one another as they are walked upon, thereby saving the cost of purchasing a large amount of fabric. Finally, when they reach the inside of the church and the altar, the couple stands on a much finer material (like gold silk).

Details on the ceremony itself are rather scarce. Levin provides some more details:

There were blessings for the health of the couple and the community, hopes for the birth of children, and praise for God, Jesus Christ, and the Mother of God for care and sustenance. One of the featured readings from Genesis recalled the creation of Adam and Eve, and a second, from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, explained the duties of husband and wife to each other. The Gospel reading, from John, recounted Jesus' miracle at Cana, the ecclesiastical justification of the institution of marriage.

The groom stood at the right hand of the priest and the bride at the left. Each one received a single burning candle which they carried for the entire service. They exchanged rings and were "crowned" with wreaths placed upon their heads. In general, every statement in an Orthodox service was made at least three times (usually with a responsive from the chorus), leading to a very long service, during which everyone stood. According to the Russian Orthodox, it is impious to sit in church.

Fletcher says that, at the end of the church service, the bride fell to the feet of the groom and (as a sign of subservience) knocked her head against his shoe. He, in turn, threw his cloak or outer garment around her as a sign that he would protect her. While Fletcher's account may not be completely reliable, it is in character with other marriage practices, as we shall see below.

The Feast [Pir] and Gifts [Podarki]

The fabric was again laid on the ground for the couple as they left the church and returned to the bride's home. This time, the bride's mother showered the couple with money and hops and the bride's father kissed the groom. Everyone entered the feast hall and the feasting began. Everyone took part in this feast, except the couple. The groom was allowed to "nibble" on bread and cheese and drink wine, but the bride did not even have that privilege. For the others, however, there was plenty to eat. The traditional first remove was roast swan, which the groom was supposed to carve, serving the bride's parents first and then the other guests. He continued to work as head server until at least the third remove, when he was spelled by the captain, the best man, and some friends.

Either during the feast, or just prior to it, gifts were given. Of these, von Herberstein makes the curious observation:

The bridegroom takes careful note of the source of each present. After the wedding he looks over the presents to see what he intends to keep, sending it to market for valuation. He returns all the others to where they came from with a word of thanks. But what he has kept he pays for within the year according to the valuation, or cancels the obligation with other gifts.

While such behavior may be documentably period, it would probably be considered rude at SCA weddings!

The Whip [Derzhava]

The most notorious gift given was the whip which the father of the bride gave to the groom. According to tradition, the father struck his daughter with it and said, "By these blows you, daughter, know the power of your father. Now this power goes into other hands. Instead of me, your husband will teach you with this lash." By some accounts, the groom was also supposed to strike her as a sign of his dominance. If he was feeling more benevolent, however, he might place it in his tunic sash instead "to express the hope that he will never encounter a use for it."

At the end of the feast, the best man arose, thanked the bride's parents, and invited them (and the guests) to the groom's house for a feast the following night. The groom -- to show his respect -- bowed to the bride's parents while the announcement was made. With this formality completed, the feast ended and the couple was bedded.

The Bedding

The major members of the wedding then left the bride's house. The groom rode a horse, while the bride rode in the carriage. The others came by unspecified means. The best man and the bridesmaid, along with both sets of parents and the matchmakers (if applicable) came in and arranged the bedroom. The couple changed into their night clothes (It is unclear if they did this changing in each other's presence or with their own helpers alone), climbed into bed, and were fed (thereby finally getting the opportunity to eat!). The captain fed his "prince" and the groom's mother fed the "princess." The couple were not allowed to feed themselves. After the couple had finished eating, the bride's parents blessed the groom's parents and everyone departed for home. All of the fires were put out except for the bridal candle, which was required to burn all night.

Second and Third Days

As mentioned before, the medieval Russian wedding ceremony was three days in length. On the second day, the couple was bathed (separately) and placed back in bed, where they received audiences and gifts. As the best man had promised, the second evening's feast took place at the groom's home and it was the bride's family's turn to make a big entrance. Once again, the groom served the guests. On the third day, the washing and audience receiving was repeated. However, people seemed to have grown a bit weary of all the reveling and the third feast (which took place at the bride's house) consisted of simpler fare. While details are not available, Rabinovich suggests that it might well have consisted of only a repast of fruit and cheese. With the completion of the third feast, the couple was (finally!) married.

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