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Rituals and traditions of the Ukrainian wedding

 

Wedding in the Ukrainian countryside used to be — and to a large extent still is — an event that involved the whole village in which it took place, and lasted for days on end. The traditional marriage rites, the rituals of the wedding ceremony and of the wedding party were strictly observed. In recent years, some of the ancient wedding traditions have begun to be coming back.

 

I’ve got a noble daughter

Who is like a gem of clear water.

In marriage seek her hand,

And your happiness will never end.

From a Ukrainian folk song

 

It is assumed by anthropologists that marriage is one of the earliest social institutions and rites of marriage are observed in every historically known society. These rites vary from extremes of elaboration to utmost simplicity, and they may be secular events or religious ceremonies. Marriage is a legally and socially sanctioned union, usually between a man and a woman that is regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners, and gives status to their offspring. Through the ages marriages have taken a great number of forms.

The rituals and ceremonies surrounding marriage in most cultures are associated primarily with fecundity and validate the importance of marriage for the continuation of a clan, people, or society. They also assert a familial or communal sanction of the mutual choice and an understanding of the difficulties and sacrifices involved in making what is considered, in most cases, to be a lifelong commitment to and responsibility for the welfare of spouse and children.

Marriage ceremonies include symbolic rites, often sanctified by a religious order, which are thought to confer good fortune on the couple. Because economic considerations play an essential role in the success of child rearing, the offering of gifts, both real and symbolic, to the married couple is a significant part of the marriage ritual.

Fertility rites intended to ensure a fruitful marriage exist in some form in all ceremonies. Some of the oldest rituals still to be found in contemporary ceremonies include the prominent display of fruit or of cereal grains that may be sprinkled over the couple or on their nuptial bed, the accompaniment of a small child with the bride, and the breaking of an object or food to ensure a successful consummation of the marriage and an easy childbirth.

The most universal ritual is one that symbolizes a sacred union. This may be expressed by the joining of hands, an exchange of rings or chains, or the tying of garments. However, all the elements in marriage rituals vary greatly among different societies, and components such as time, place, and the social importance of the event are fixed by tradition and habit.

From its beginning, Christianity has emphasized the spiritual nature and indissolubility of marriage. Some Christian churches count marriage as one of the sacraments, and other Christians confirm the sanctity of marriage but do not identify it as a sacrament. Since the Middle Ages, Christian weddings have taken place before a priest or minister, and the ceremony involves the exchange of vows, readings from Scripture, and a blessing.

Ukrainian traditional marriage rites fit the general picture of what marriage rituals are about, but at the same time, there are things which differ them from such rites observed by other peoples and nations.

 

Marriage arrangements in Ukraine

Until the late 20th century, marriage was rarely a matter of free choice. However, we shall not deal with the issue of love between spouses, which in more recent times came to be associated with marriage — it is a separate and vast subject to discuss. What follows is a description of the age-old Ukrainian marriage rites and wedding rituals. As a general observation, one can say that in most cases romantic love was not the primary motive for matrimony in the past, and one’s marriage partner was usually carefully chosen.

It was believed that a marriage would be happy if certain rituals were carefully observed at all the stages of courting, at the wedding ceremony and at the wedding reception by the betrothed and their kin. Some of these rituals, or probably most of them, including songs and dances, must have had their origin in the very distant pre-Christian past.

The Ukrainian word for “wedding” is “vesillya”; the root of the word, “vesil” suggests something “vesele”, that is “joyous.” The traditional wedding ceremony, which with the advent of Christianity began to include the ceremony performed in church, was a sort of a folk performance with many participants each of whom played their roles prescribed by tradition. Some of the wedding rituals, songs and dances also had some symbolic meaning; others were of a “magical” nature, performed to assure fertility, luck and happiness.

Prof. Fedir Vovk, a prominent Ukrainian ethnologist, wrote in one of his papers in 1895, “Here is a fact which may surprise European readers, but which helps better understand to what extent rituals are important in Ukraine — the religious blessing given to a marriage is not considered enough for the newlyweds to consummate their marriage and start their married life. The newlyweds have to perform all the rituals that tradition demands to be performed in order to be considered to be truly married.”

The Ukrainian ethnographer T. Osadchy wrote in his book Shlyubny uhody u malorosiyan (Marriage Agreements of the Ukrainians), “Marriage is strengthened to become a rock-solid union not by purely practical interests but by a close spiritual bond which is deeply rooted in the Ukrainian human nature that is lavishly endowed with an ability to love.”

Marriage rituals and traditions, and attitudes within the wedlock, and attitudes to those people who become related by marriage began to be formed at some early stages of the development of the institution of marriage of the Ukrainian nation. One of the early medieval chronicles states, for example, that “The Polyany (one of the proto-Ukrainian tribes) were of a benevolent disposition and adhered to the habits and traditions of their ancestors; they greatly respected their in-laws and their kin.”

Christianity was adopted in Kyivan Rus-Ukraine at the end of the ninth century but it took centuries before the church wedding was firmly established.

In contrast to the traditions of many other peoples and nations, in Ukraine it was not so much the father of the girl, who wanted to get married, who had the last word in finalizing the marriage decision, but the girl herself and her fiance. Also, not only young men had the right to “svatatysya”, that is to court and propose marriage, but unmarried girls as well. Foreign travelers and observers were much surprised to discover such customs in Ukraine. One of them, Guillaume L. Beauplane, a French engineer and cartographer, wrote in the first half of the seventeenth century: “What I am going to describe may seem very unusual or even incredible to many — in Ukraine, unlike it is with all the other peoples, it is not the young men who propose marriage, but the girls who propose their hand in marriage to the young men, and it is a rare occasion that their suit is not successful.”

Girls would go the house of the parents of the young men they wanted to marry and would insist that marriage be arranged there and then, adding that they would not leave the house until their demands were met.

 

Betrothal rituals

When it was a young man who did the proposing, the first thing he was supposed to do was to find a respected person who knew well all the rituals. This man, svat in Ukrainian, was sent to talk to the prospective bride’s parents (this mission was called svatannya). The chief svat usually had other svats to accompany him. Properly dressed (their dress proclaimed their purpose), the svat delegation would begin their “performance” from the moment they arrived at the door of their destination. Their mission was variously described as “a hunt” or “trade” in which they were the merchants asking for the “goods” — that is the girl. At the time when the svats were declaring their purpose, the girl was supposed to be standing by the pich (a combination of a cooking stove and a heating installation) and silently addressing the ancestors with a request to bless her marriage.

If she accepted the proposal, she would give the svats long embroidered towels which they would put over their shoulders and chests as sashes. If she turned the proposal down, the girl would present the svats with a pumpkin (hence the Ukrainian idiom — daty harbuza which literally means: “to give somebody a pumpkin” and metaphorically — to refuse to do something).

If the first stage of the svatannya was successful, the second stage, ohlyadyny (“inspection”) began. The bride’s parents went to the bridegroom’s house to have a good look around and ascertain that he could support his wife. If the bride’s parents were satisfied with what they saw, the third stage, zaruchyny (“betrothal”) was declared. The bridegroom’s parents went to the bride’s parents’ place, and in the presence of their parents, the bride and bridegroom announced their intention to get married. Usually, at such meetings, the village elder was present and he would wind an embroidered towel around the betrothed hands. The parents then blessed their children, and presents were exchanged. If any of the parties involved declared some time after the zaruchyny that they refused to go ahead with the marriage, they would have to pay a fine “for causing an offense.”

Usually two weeks elapsed between the zaruchyny and the vesillya (wedding). The bride was supposed to make a wreath of flowers and colorful ribbons and whenever she appeared in public, she had to wear such a wreath.

The preferred day of the week for weddings was Sunday. On Friday, the korovay (big loaf of bread) to be given to the newlyweds at the wedding ceremony was baked, as well as other ritual biscuits and cakes. The whole process of korovay making was accompanied by singing of songs appropriate for the occasion. In the Land of Halychyna, a figurine of baran (ram) made of bread was presented to the newlyweds. This baran was a symbolic substitute of a real animal that used to be sacrificed at weddings in the pagan times. In the Carpathians, instead of the baran, two geese made of bread were presented.

The korovay presentation ceremony was performed by women who were of cheerful disposition and happy in marriage; no unmarried girls or widows were allowed to take part in the presentation.

Also on Friday, the vesilne hiltse — “wedding ritual tree” — was decorated in the bride’s house. It was a sapling or a big branch that the bridegroom had to cut and bring to his fiancee’s house. This tree symbolized the Tree of Life, and was decorated by the bride’s parents or the next of kin, or girls, friends of the bride, with multicolored ribbons and red berries.

At the hen party on Friday night before the wedding, the girls present at the party were wearing wreaths made of periwinkle or myrtle which symbolized virginity and purity. Songs were sung; the bride loosened her braids (if she had an elder brother, it was he who did the unbraiding) as a gesture of farewell to her unmarried life. During the ritual called posad, which was performed that night, the bride was led to the chervony (“beautiful”) corner in the biggest room of the house where the icons were displayed and where she paid symbolic homage to her ancestors.

On Saturday, the bride with her friends and the bridegroom with his friends went separately around the village with bread inviting people to come to their wedding, and saying “My mother, and my father and I, too, ask you to come to my wedding tomorrow!”

 

Wedding day

On Sunday, the molody (bridegroom; literally — the young one) was to go to his bride’s house whence they would go to church. The bridegroom’s mother walked him to the gate of their household, blessing him and throwing grain or small coins over him.

At one point on the way to the bride’s house, the bridegroom’s progress was barred and “ransom” for the bride was demanded by a group of the bride’s friends. The bridegroom had to give out presents, food and drink, or money, and then he would be let through. This ritual was called “pereyma” — “interception.”

When he arrived at the bride’s place, the bridegroom was supposed to take her in his arms and carry her some distance from the house to the waiting carriage or wagon. The wedding train consisted of many horse-drawn wagons and other similar vehicles which were decorated with flowers, ribbons and rugs. In one of the wagons was carried the vesilne hiltse — the Tree of Life which also symbolized the continuity of generations (a sort of “genealogical tree”). Traditions of arranging the wedding trains varied from region to region. In the Carpathians, for example, the participants, including the molodi (the betrotheds; literally — “the young ones”) rode on horseback rather than in wagons. The procession looked noble and impressive, and the bride and the bridegroom were referred to as “knyaz” — “Duke,” and “knyahynya” — “Duchess.” The bride carried a dyven — bread roll in the shape of a wheel, or rather a tire, through which she would ceremoniously look in the four directions of the world and see what the future held for her with her husband-to-be. The bridegroom carried figurines of an ox and a plow made of bread which symbolized husbandry and the work he would be doing.

After the wedding ceremony in church, the couple proceeded to the bride’s place where a huge wedding reception was held. Rituals of the wedding party varied in different parts of Ukraine, but usually, the newlyweds would go around the korovay (wedding bread) three times and then sit on a bench covered with a sheep skin coat, the fur outside — it was a symbol of prosperity. Then the newlyweds were given bread and healthy and good-looking children to hold in their arms — for good luck in having healthy children.

Dances, in which all the guests were involved, were part of the wedding celebrations; mostly, people danced not in pairs but all together in a circle.

There were hundreds of different songs sung at the wedding parties, most of which consisted of good wishes for a long happy life of the newlyweds, of thanks to the parents, of asking God to grant a happy destiny to the newlyweds, of expressions of sorrow of the parents parting with their children. Some of the things were of quite a bawdry nature, or teasing.

Closer to the evening, the wedding wreath was removed from the bride’s head and a headscarf was put on instead. This ritual, called “pokryvannya” — “covering”, symbolized the bride’s transition from girlhood to the status of a married woman. The karavay, which was of a very big size, was then cut into small pieces and everybody present at the pokryvannya ceremony was given a piece, the newlyweds included.

The newlyweds were to spend their first night together in a komora — a store-room or store-house. As they were not supposed to eat or drink anything during the wedding party, the newlyweds were given a baked chicken and a bowl of honey to eat.

The young wife’s nightgown with bloodspots was displayed the next morning as evidence of losing her virginity during the night. The absence of such evidence would bring shame not only on the young woman but on her parents as well.

Wedding celebrations continued for a week or more, with customs and rituals differing from region to region, but in spite of the local differences, the general pattern remained more or less the same.

 

In recent years, the birthrates have been falling in Ukraine and the government introduced some measures to remedy the situation. Women, for example, began to be paid considerable bonuses at the birth of a child.

The number of people who would like to have their wedding arranged in accordance with the age-old customs and traditions is growing and they want to do it in the right way but do not know how. The All-Ukraine festival Rozhanytsya, which was established some time ago by the joint efforts of the Ethnographic Folk Theater Choven, the local authority of the village of Bobrytsya and of the Muzey Ivana Honchara Ukrainian Folk Culture Center, is called upon to spread information about the authentic marriage rites and wedding rituals (Rozhanytsya is an ancient goddess of fecundity; representations of this ancient goddess can be found on traditional embroidered towels and woven rugs).

The Festival, which was a colorful and joyous event with most of the participants wearing traditional Ukrainian dresses and actively participating in all the events of the festival, proved to be an unqualified success. It also showed a growing interest in the customs and traditions of the Ukrainian past — the cultural continuity, which was severely disrupted during the soviet times, is being reestablished.

 

Based on an essay by Tetyana POSHYVAYLO

 

 

 

Embroidered rushnyk Chernytsky.

Chyhyryn, Cherkasy Oblast, early 19th century.

Ukrainian Folk Culture Center Muzey Ivana Honchara.

 

Bride Shower by Vladimir Makovsky.

Oil on canvas, 121,5 x 189 cm. 1882.

 

Knyaz i knyahynya — a couple of newlyweds.

The village of Kosmach, the Land of Ivano-

Frankivshchyna, 1920s. Photo from the historical

and ethnographic album, Ukrayina i Ukrayintsi,

published by Ivan Honchar.

 

Ukrainian wedding. The village of Kosmach,

the Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna. May 2007.

 

Newlyweds with guests and the priest.

The village of Kosmach, the Land of

Ivano-Frankivshchyna. May 2007.

 

A wedding ritual zavyvannya hiltsya as performed

by Roksolaniya folk song and dance group

at the press- conference given at the opening

of the Rozhenytsya Festival.

Ukrainian Folk Culture Center Muzey Ivana Honchara.

October 2007.

 

Korovay, a traditional loaf of bread to be

presented to the newlyweds. The villag

of Kosmach, the Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna.

 

Oleksiy Voskobiynyk and Polina Bereza getting

married. The village Bohushkova Sloboda, 1918.

Photo from the historical and ethnographic album,

Ukrayina i Ukrayintsi, published by Ivan Honchar.

 

Wedding, the village of Banyliv, Bukovyna, 1932.

Photo from the historical and ethnographic album,

Ukrayina i Ukrayintsi, published by Ivan Honchar.

 

Embroidered rushnyk.

Sumy Oblast, end of the 19th century.

Ukrainian Folk Culture Center Muzey Ivana Honchara.

 

Two Doves, a folk painting.

First half of the 20th century.

Ukrainian Folk Culture Center Muzey Ivana Honchara.

 

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