martedì 9 giugno 2009

Traditional Bulgarian Wedding

Many Bulgarian wedding rituals have been almost entirely preserved. Others are now lost. However, in the 21st century, Bulgarians tend to reject marriage in great pomp. Most of the original rituals are still carried out but many young people do not follow the "old-fashioned" customs.
Originally, marriage consisted of a series of festivities, containing elements and symbols that were impossible to omit. Not to follow the procedures was inconceivable. The main elements of a marriage can be divided into three cathegories - "engagement", "marriage" and "post-marriage" rituals. I plan to present them to you in three articles.
The Visit of the Parents
It is important to point out that even though the father was considered as the most important person in the family, the bride's opinion has always been taken into consideration and her wishes were always carried out.
A girl who would not accept marriage would never be forced into an arranged one. Sometimes a girl would have some requirements which her future husband had to carry out. Those are often refered to in tales. Sometimes the bride would ask her future husband to bring her some kind of gift in proof of his attachment. Sometimes, young men from the North-West would go far to the South ( and some would even reach Greece ) to buy sheep or other cattle - a journey that could turn out perilous for many especially at the time of the Turkish presence.
Until the 1940-ies there existed one exciting ritual that preceded the wedding. It was called "sgleda" and consisted of a prearranged meeting between young people who wanted to get married.
Young men would go after young women who, every morning, went to the river to do the washing or to take water. Water was carried in large pots called "mentsi". Those were carried on the shoulders and if a man wanted to give a sign of love to a young woman, he would attempt to drink some of the water she carried back to her house.
Then, the young man sent his father to the home of the chosen girl. If the young man was an orphan, he would send his mother or his closest friends but he would never go on his own.
They would usually bring "rakia" ( a very strong home-made beverage which is made of plums or grapes and resembles the german "schnapps" and the French "eau-de-vie" ), a small bouquet of "zdravets" ( an evergreen plant with no flowers nor buds, which is considered a symbol of health and prosperity ) as well as some gifts for the girl and her father.
The girl's father, considered the master of the house, offered the guests a drink. If he approved the match, he would give his blessing. Then he was supposed to ask his daughter three times if she could accept the marriage. If she confirmed, the family sent small gifts, cookies and wine back to her future groom and his family.
Sometimes a girl would propose to a young man by leaving him her kerchief or a flower. She would drop it somewhere near him and would not turn back. If he accepted, he would send his parents to the girl's family.
The Engagement
The engagement was often held at the girl's house and this on a specially chosen holiday or on a Sunday. Relatives and neighbours were invited and were normally supposed to have a great feast, overeat and drink as much wine as they could...
An important moment during this ritual was the agreement on the details of the wedding. This ritual was the equivalent of a legal act. The period between the engagement and the wedding lasted from one day to a year or even more. It depended on the local customs and the income of the families. Some would take their time and save money for the future family or even start building a house!
During that period, the girl was allowed to see her future husband but the young man was not to go to the girl's house without prior arrangement. The girl was supposed to stay at home, weave, knit and sew. She had to make the costumes for the marriage, the bedclothes for her first wedding night and everything she might need at home.
The Party and the Hen - a Bachelor's Party or a "Farewell Dinner"
After the engagement party, people were supposed to have two farewell parties. The first party was thrown at the groom's house ( the bride was not present ) and the second one - at the bride's ( the groom was not present ).
Normally, both families would kill a hen in honour of their future family-in-law. In some regions, families would go around the village ( or town ) and would give sweets and food to everyone they saw ( an article on traditional food will be published later ).
Those parties have lost their original ritualistic meaning but they are still symbols of the separation of a single person from a group of unmarried men or women. They mark a period of transition and entrance into active life. At the same time, the week prior to the wedding was full of many complicated rituals which are no longer practiced and most are forgotten.
The Ritual Bread and the Wedding Three
The Bread was made on the Thursday prior to the wedding. It was called "Pita" and was considered a very important part of the preparations. ( Such bread is made on almost every holiday. For every occasion, there exist different types of forms and ornaments. The top of some "pita"s is covered with ornaments representing grapes, animals, people, crusifixes, etc. There are thousands of pattenrs possible but each carry a different significance and has a predefined purpose. )
The Bread was prepared by the oldest woman of the bride's family. She would prepare it while singing ritual songs one after the other. When the dough was ready to bake, she would place a cross on it and would bless the bread.
During the last week before the marriage, the tradition required the preparation of the object to be carried in front of the wedding procession - the "wedding tree".
This time, somebody close to the groom was in charge of preparing it. Often this was a brother or a cousin. The pole for the so called "tree" was cut off from an orchard tree. The branch had to be chopped off with one swing and the pole had to be about 2 meters long.
A hand-woven kerchief and an apple were attached to the pole. An onion was fixed on top of it. This was also decorated with popcorn and bunches of "zdravets" ( the plant I mentioned above ). Ivy was tied with interwoven red and white threads ( this is called "martenitsa" and Bulgarians belive it brings health and happiness, there is a special holiday on the 1st March every year in connection with the "martenitsa" - I envision a special article about it ).
The wedding tree is still preserved in some regions. It is carried in front of the wedding procession. Some Bulgarian Roms ( gypsies ) have this same tradition. In some regions we can see a flag ( normally red ) or even both a flag and a wedding tree.
Braiding the Bride's Hair & Shaving the Groom Hair braiding was an important part of the pre-marriage ritual. Everything was done by the friends of the bride, who sometimes accomplished entire chef-d'oeuvres. Many jewels were put in the girl's hair and were often quite heavy to wear. Most of the jewels were made from wrought iron and silver. At the same time, the hair of the future groom was shaved which was thought to serve as protection from evil forces.
Both these rituals were accompanied with dances and music, supposed to protect the couple. These were the last rituals that preceded the wedding.
The Best Man
Early on the morning of the wedding day, all the guests, relatives and friends of the groom would gather at his house.
Usually, there was a table set with snacks for the guests. The main concern at that moment was the best man.
The best man and the maid of honour were ( and still are ) chosen among the married couples of the town or village. They had to be close friends of the young couple.
The "taking" of the best man from his own house was very a jovial and noisy procedure, which was accompanied with music and dances.
The groom and his friends, headed towards the best man's house, followed by musicians and the crowd of guests. They danced dancing all the way to the best man's house and if there was a carriage, ( as in some wealthy parts of the country ) the whole procession was obliged to run after the vehicle... Even at this time, in some villages we can see a large croud, following some musicians, who, on their turn, run after a carriage, in which there tries to stand upright a very happy ( and most of the time very drunk! ) fellow - the groom.
There was another table set at the best man's house for the guests... The groom brought wine and a roasted chicken. From that moment on, the best man's word was said to be "law" - whatever idea he had, everyone had to follow him. The procession headed towards the bride's house, the best man carrying his own wine, the bride's maid waving the bride's veil. If the best man suggested it, this procession could run around the village for as long as it physically could endure it and until they had no more wine... This procession went to church to take candles and a small basket of baked candy.
Taking the Bride Before the groom left the house, his friends poured barley over his head and shot with rifles in the air. Then the groom's father stood at the gate and blessed his son and the marriage.
The order of the ceremony procession towards the bride's house was the following:
• at the head of the procession was the flag-bearer,
• then the dancers (young men and women who play "Rachenitsa" - a popular folk dance),
• then come the best man and the groom,
• then come the musicians, who were supposed to make as much noise as possible.
The rest of the guests followed at the end. There was a special messenger who served as a "hostage". He would go first to the bride's house. Usually this was a man with a great sense of humor who told jokes and tried to divert the attention of the bride's parents by trying to buy a rooster from them. This has a particular purpose, however. It was because the bride was hidden somewhere in the house and if her parents' attention was diverted, someone might come and steal her.
There was a rooster on every wedding. It was decorated with wreaths of white popcorn and chili peppers. Its wings were tied with red cloth and people usually bargained a long time on its price.
The groom's wedding guests were stopped at the front gates. They had to jump and do all sorts of crazy things in order to be allowed to enter the bride's house. Sometimes, if the "hostage" was successful in diverting the parents' attention, he would open the gate or would even steal the bride and take her outside right away!
But if we follow the normal procedure, after the procession was allowed to enter, the most honored guests sat down around tables in the yard.
The attention shifted to the young couple. The bride was locked in a room somewhere, and only the bride's maid could visit her.
Later, after some bargains for admission, the best man and the groom could join them too. The maid's obligation was to "veil" the bride. She veiled the bride three times; two times the bride would reject the veil, on the third time she would agree to keep it.
In the meantime all the wedding guests were singing and dancing outside, expecting the groom and the bride. The "hostage" continued to make jokes, play with the rooster and brag about anything. At the same time, the girls were trying to steal the rooster in order to sell it again.
The groom and the bride are taken out of the house by the bride's brother (if any) or by the bride's maid. Each held an end of a long hand-woven cloth.
At the front door, there was to be another set of protection rituals. The bride threw a dish (a new one and especially brought by the groom) filled with wheat, coins and a raw egg. She threw the dish behind and over her head and she was not allowed to look back at it. It was a good sign if the dish broke into many small pieces.
Then the bride had to knock over a copper cauldron with water. People guessed about future crops, by the way the water had spilled.
At the front gates, just before the bride and the groom left the house, the mother threw a bucket of water on the road, wishing them a smooth and happy life. The guests threw coins, wheat and candy all over.
An essential part of the wedding ceremony were the sad songs that were sung because of the separation of the mother and the daughter or the bride's separation with the girl's life. Singing was very important and that is why the guests sing almost all the time! The songs are full of symbols and are sometimes impossible to translate correctly... An example of some lines of a song is:
"A fir tree is being twisted; a lass says good-bye to her kin."
Usually in front of the bride's house the groom and the guests dance the "horo". This is a very popular dance, which persist in every celembration. There are different types of "hora" ( the plural ) and one of the best are those arranged by Diko Illiev.
The Wedding Procession
On the way to the church, the wedding procession was cheerful and noisy. There had to be someone to beat the drum, the guests had to shout and shoot in the air. Occasionally, they would stop on the way to dance and anyone who passed by was invited.
The bride was never to look back at her house. It was not a good sign. Another terrible sign was if two brides ( unmarried ) met on the street. It was believed that they would steal each other's happiness, that is husbend... Even today there are occasions when a wedding ( in Bulgaria, the word "wedding" - or "svatba" is often used as a collective noun as in English "the police" or "the blind" etc. When used in this way, it would mean the whole procession AND at the same time every single man or woman who walk along with the bride and groom. Here I use it contrary to the English rule... ;-) )wander and sneak around the neighborhood in order to avoid facing another marriage procession.
The Marriage Ceremony
The marriage ceremony in church is a very important part of the wedding even though it had nothing to do with the folk rituals! They remain from the times of the Tribal Union ( which occupied the territory of future Bulgaria ) when the population had multiple religions and obeyed the rules of polytheism!
Marriage in a Christian Orthodox church ( this is the official religion in Bulgaria ) is very different from the one in a Catholic or a Protestant church. If you would like some details or if you have questions on this subkects, please do not hesitat to write and I will do some research!
Now, very often, the bride and the groom would try to enter the church with their rihgt foot first... But that is more of a superstition. Anyway, many people believe that the bride tends to step with the left one first all the time so the groom actually attempts to carry the bride.
Later, after signing of the official documents, instead of kissing the bride, the groom tries to step on one of her legs... Sometimes it is she who succeeds to do it on the first place and then, there is a general applause for that is considered a sign that the bride would wear the pants in the family.

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