Asking her Father
The first and many would say most dangerous marriage tradition actually takes place a long time before the big day itself: asking the bride’s father for her hand in marriage. This isn’t simply a man-toman chat as it is in many parts of Western Europe. In Ukraine this is a very serious business. Not only the bridegroom, but his parents and friends as well all make the journey to the bride’s parents’ house with a beautifully decorated round Ukrainian loaf as a present. Luckily for the groom, he does not ask the question himself, but his father and friends do it for him. Usually the bride’s father will ask his daughter whether she wants to marry the man or not, and will give his answer depending on hers. If the answer is yes then both sets of parents discuss the time and place. But if the answer is no then the poor jilted man is traditionally given a pumpkin!
Travelling to the Wedding
Unlike in many other countries, it is not considered back luck here for the groom to see the bride before the wedding ceremony itself. In fact, it is traditional in Ukraine that he picks her up from her parents’ house. The wedding car, no matter how grand or humble, will be barely visible under a plethora of flowers, balloons and ribbons. The groom travels in the wedding car and is usually followed convoy-style by all his friends and family, driving through the streets of the city blasting their horns. Upon arriving at the bride’s residence the horn-tooting becomes a cacophony letting her, her family and her friends know that it is time to go. The bridegroom collects the bride from the house and as they leave together the bride’s mother throws seeds (a symbol of wellbeing), rose petals (for prosperity and health) and coins (a symbol of financial stability) onto their heads.
The Soviet Ceremony
The first part of the marriage proceeding does not take place at the church but at the registry office where the official registration ceremony takes place. This is where the bride and groom will officially become man and wife, whether a church ceremony takes place afterwards or not, so it is a crucial part of the proceedings, and thanks to seventy years of Soviet atheism has become as traditional here as church services are elsewhere in the world. The ceremony begins with a fanfare, and a Ukrainian embroidered towel is spread on the floor for the young couple to stand on. The wedding vows are exchanged at this point, and then the happy couple will be congratulated by both sets of parents.
A Crowned and Holy UNI0N
After the official registration comes the church ceremony, and it is now that the maid of honour and the best man will be wishing they hadn’t been such good friends with the bride and groom, for it is their duty to hold crowns over the heads of the bride and groom throughout the long service, which can lead to very sore arms! During the ceremony the priest blesses the couple for happiness, health, luck, faithfulness, understanding, love and respect for one another. There is a very strange superstition surrounding the church wedding ceremony: with all the candles around it is considered very bad luck for the future of the marriage if the bride’s dress catches fire! It would of course be tremendously unfortunate for the bride to end up in the burns unit on her wedding day, but that aside it is a frantic time for her mother who is on tenterhooks throughout making sure she and her dress don’t stray too close to a naked flame.
Essential Photo Opportunities
Now comes the time for the newly married couple to have their photograph taken, and it has become a tradition that this is done using one of the many Kyiv landmarks as a backdrop. Everyone in the wedding party piles back into their cars and heads off to St. Sofia or St Michaels, The Golden Gate or that viking-style boat monument by the river where the wedding photographer captures the joy of the new husband and wife and their friends and family on film.
Let’s Get the Party Started!
With the hard part now over it’s time to party! The wedding celebration usually takes place in a restaurant or at the home of the bride or groom, but regardless of the location the important thing is to drink, dance and have fun! All the guests bring presents which in Ukraine will be simple things the new family will need to set up home: kitchen utensils, linen, home appliances and the like. There is no stigma in Ukraine to giving money, and many will offer up mafia-style envelopes stuffed with cash. There is usually a meal and then speeches and toasts. After each toast the guests shout, “Gorko! Gorko! Gorko!” which translates somewhat strangely as bitter, but in this context it means everyone wants to see the couple kiss. As some grooms have pointed out, the number of kisses at the wedding celebration often exceeds to the total received throughout the whole dating period. Kissing should continue until the chanting dies down, but the bride and groom should be ready to kiss at any moment. Tongues are not considered essential, but neither are they entirely frowned upon.
The Best Man and the Maid of Honour
After shouting Gorko to the bride and groom, the guests will then shout it at the best man and the maid of honour meaning they now want to see them kiss, which can lead to all sorts of hilarity and alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour. On one occasion the Best Man did not speak Russian and was completely unaware of this tradition so while the chant rose in volume he innocently continued with his meal. When someone explained what was expected of him, he went a deep shade of red and gave the rather beautiful bridesmaid a peck. Later, however, no doubt fuelled by copious amounts of vodka, he kept insisting the guests shout Gorko at them again!
During the celebration the groom must prove his devotion, not only to his new bride but to her mother also. With all the guests as witnesses, he must declare that he will be kind and caring towards his mother-in-law. As a sign of his attention, and a mark of respect, he presents her with a new pair of boots which he then places on her feet.
Stealing the Bride
At some point during the proceedings, the bride will inevitably be ‘stolen’ by the guests who then demand a ransom for her safe return. The groom will be asked to pay a few hundred hriyvna for her shoes, and a much larger sum for the bride herself. This in actuality is a rather underhand tactic on the part of the bride, as any money he pays for her goes not to the guests but in her own pocket, and she judges the level of his love for her on the amount of money he is prepared to pay! An additional part of this drawn-out tradition is the drinking of champagne from the bride’s elegant high heeled shoes, which usually takes place when the shoes are returned. Alternatively, instead of simply paying a ransom the groom’s Best Man may well be asked to perform a series of suggestive or embarrassing acts in order to win back the stolen bride.
Who Will be the Breadwinner?
Who is going to be the most dominant personality in any newly married couple is a question wedding guests everywhere ask themselves, and Ukraine is no different, but here they have even devised a test that takes place on the wedding day. During the party the couple are presented with traditional bread off of which they are each asked to break a chunk, using only their thumb and forefingers. According to tradition the one left holding the larger piece will be the head of the family. While this may seem a piece of idle fun, it often turns out to be true!
From Bride to Wife!
The party is coming to a close, and everyone has had a great time, but there is still one last thing to be done: the custom of turning the bride into a wife. The bride and all the young unmarried girls will dance a waltz which signifies that every young woman has a right to love, happiness and a family. The bride then throws her bouquet over her left shoulder and the girl who catches it will be the next to be married. The bride then says a symbolic goodbye to the unmarried girls at which point the bride’s mother presents her with a round loaf and lifts her bridal veil from her face. A traditional Ukrainian kerchief is placed on her head and the young bride has turned into a married woman! The official part of the wedding is now over! Time for the really hard to part to begin…