Traditional Belarusian wedding is a wild mixture of pagan rituals and Orthodox beliefs. Compare wedding traditions from the past with a present-day marriage ceremony and see what’s changed.
Historically, a wedding in Belarus had three stages: an offer of marriage and engagement, a wedding and honeymoon. Each ceremony had the sole purpose of bringing happiness and prosperity to a couple. Despite we are way less superstitious than older generations, many ancient rites survived.
Then: A groom-to-be sent the emissary, normally his godfather, to the girl’s parents. The matchmaker would pack a bread loaf and a bottle of spirits. To show they accepted the offer, the bride’s mother would fill the emptied spirit bottle with rye and wrap it into an embroidered towel.
Now: Arranged marriages became a matter of history, and the final say belongs to your significant other, not her parents. Belarusian women have been navigating through the world of emancipation and Western values for some time now, yet many expect a proposal in a memorable setting, with flowers, a serenade, and their man standing on one knee.
After you agreed to solidify the relationship, it’s recommended to meet her parents and formally “ask for the hand”.
Fredrik from Norway: I proposed to Evgenia during our holiday in Málaga. We had a classic dinner date, watched a flamenco performance, went for a walk in the park… then I kneeled and drew out a ring. And she said yes!
Then: The two families gathered to discuss wedding arrangements and the amount of dowry that would help the newly married couple to settle down in a place of their own.
Now: The young couple chooses the wedding venue, number of guests, the bridesmaid and best man, and makes other important arrangements. Parents are concerned when it comes to covering the expenses.
Joshua from England: Hanna phoned her parents a couple of days later to tell them the news. I met her dad for the first time after our return to Minsk. He had been practicing his English and was very welcoming, like all of Hanna’s family and friends, he was very keen to help out.
Ransom for the bride
Then: Before meeting his sweetheart for the first time, the groom had to jokingly redeem the bride from her relatives. With the matchmaker’s help, he prepared to negotiate the price using money, alcoholic beverages, sweets, cookies, honey, and embroidered belts.
The whole thing escalated into heavy bargaining, where each side was trying to hit a nerve, accuse the opponents of stinginess. Once they reached a deal, the groom was allowed to take the bride to his parents’ house.
Now: This is one of the rare traditions that survived to our day virtually unchanged. After the ransom is paid in full, the guests gather for a small feast at the groom’s house. The couple drinks three shots, and three times walk around the table. On their way out they drink champagne and shatter their glasses for luck. The bride and groom throw around candies to have a “sweet life”.
Then: The bride and groom occupied two separate horse-drawn carriages. As soon as the procession was ready, the bride’s father walked around it in a sun-wise direction, while holding a small icon and two burning candles. Her mother followed and sprinkled the carts with the grain.
In the church, the men stood at the right, and the women – at the left. Traditionally, the bride and groom wore a silver and golden ring, which symbolized the union of the Sun and Moon. The rings were acquired at the same place and had no decorations.
Now: While church ceremony is not uncommon, many couples believe that a civil ceremony at the registry office, or “ZAGS”, is enough. The groom and his friends occupy the first car, the bride comes in the next. Like in the olden times, the cars are decorated with flowers and colorful ribbons; some of them honk violently. The couple’s parents stay behind to prepare for the wedding feast.
Joshua from England: We had our wedding at a ZAGS. By the end of the ceremony, the woman marrying us said: “I will now hand over the marriage certificate to the head of the family.” Both Hanna and I reached for the certificate, stopped, looked at each other for a moment and then took it at the same time. Everybody, including us, laughed.
Tour around the city
Then: After a religious ceremony was over, the couple paid respects to the ancestral graves commonly located in close proximity to the church. On the way back the newly married couple had to cross seven bridges. Each time the procession would stop for the groom to carry his bride through the bridge. No one was allowed to cross their way, as it might draw bad luck.
Now: Since by the time they get married most Belarusians leave their hometowns, the couples travel to the nearby historical sites and monuments. It’s not unusual to see a white-gowned beauty laying wreaths to a WW2 memorial and eternal fire. Sometimes the bride and groom choose a bridge and attach a “love padlock”. After a promenade, followed by a brief photoshoot, the couple drives to the wedding venue.
Then: The newlyweds were greeted by a wedding round loaf “karavai” and honey-based “medovukha” beverage. They kissed the bread and bowed to the parents, then locked a padlock placed at the doorstep, to secure the unity. The couple walked on a hand-woven ceremonial towel, that was quickly rolled up behind them.
They believed stepping on the cloth could destroy the marriage. Heavy drinking during the wedding festivities wasn’t encouraged. Ritual songs, dances, and games brought enough entertainment. For example, the couple was proposed to eat a fried egg with one spoon. In Belarusian folk tradition, an egg represents fertility, and sharing a spoon means love and devotion.
Likewise, the young family received traditional “nerazluchnitsy” wedding dolls – a protective charm designed to keep a marriage together. At the end of the feast, the groom’s mother replaced the bride’s veil with a headscarf and apron, to highlight her new role. The bridal veil was passed on to the bridesmaid.
Now: The bride and groom are received with a wedding round loaf and salt, which symbolizes harmony and prosperity. Next, they break the bread and dip it into salt. The groom carries the bride over the doorstep. Meanwhile, the toastmaster “tamada” is responsible for the entertainment: guests participate in fun, mildly sexual games, sing and dance.
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When it’s time for the couple to kiss, they shout “gorko” (bitter!). The shattered tableware brings luck, and no wedding is good without a broken glass or two. Needless to say, the wedding feast continues well into the night and finishes with the bride tossing a bouquet. In the morning everyone gets back together and the festivities continue.
Evgenia from Norway: They have a tradition in Norway, similar to “gorko” ritual. When the guests bang on the table, the couple has to climb on the chairs and kiss; when the guests stomp, the couple climbs under the table and kisses.
When it is over
Then: The honeymoon would start 9 days after the wedding and last no longer than 30 days. The next year the family was preparing for their first baby.
Now: The bride and groom waste no time and leave for a honeymoon, usually an abroad trip. Different scenarios may take place depending on the newlyweds’ desires and budget.
In recent years wedding traditions returned to the spotlight. Many young couples are setting an example by having a traditional Belarusian wedding. Whether you want to follow the trend or invent something new, it’s up to you.