Traditional Ukrainian Wedding Rituals

(Collected in Central Ukraine, 1998 by Natalie Kononenko)

The traditional Ukrainian village wedding is a complex affair with many important functions. It cements the union between the bride and the groom, establishing them as a new unit which will help perpetuate, not only their respective families, but the whole village. The wedding contains fertility symbols to insure that the couple will bear children. It serves to honor the parents who reared the young people about to wed. There is solemn religious expression in the wedding. And there is a great deal of frivolity and merry-making that serves to balance both the solemnity of the serious part of the wedding and the rigors of farming, bringing all participants, which often means a good part of the village, closer together.

I collected materials in Central Ukraine, specifically the Cherkas’ka oblast and the Kyivs’ka oblast, in the summer and fall of 1998. For their help with collecting, I thank Halyna Kornienko and Natalia Havryliuk. I also used the archival resources of the Institute of Folklore, Ethnomusicology, and Folk Art in Kyiv and for her guidance in using this archive, I thank Halyna Dovzhenok. The description of the wedding which follows is based primarily on my collecting and one should realize that there is a great deal of variation. There was variation from village to village when I did my work. Variation between oblasts and between regions is greater still. Even with the variation, there is a certain basic structure to the wedding. I am giving a rather full version of the wedding below. Some older people complained that today’s youth fail to perform all of the steps of the wedding. By the same token, I saw great interest in reviving tradition, in performing the wedding in its full form, including wearing traditional Ukrainian dress (vyshyvka) instead of the western-style white gown with veil. An interesting compromise is to wear the white gown and veil for the civil part of the wedding, the registration of the marriage contract, and to wear Ukrainian dress for all of the parts of the wedding celebrated in the home.

The traditional wedding in Central Ukraine starts with a formal engagement. The groom and several respected elders, usually two older, married men called starosty, visit the home of the bride and make a request to her parents for her hand in marriage. This visit, variously called dohliadyny, domovyny, and other terms, involves an exchange of gifts. The groom’s side provides a bottle of horilka and the bride drapes the starosty with ritual towels or rushnyky. Both parties give a loaf of bread to the other side. Many people have heard that a bride could reject her suitors by giving them a pumpkin (harbuz) instead of a loaf of bread. In real life, this seldom occurs because the young man and young woman had already courted and agreed to wed before the formal domovyny with their elders.

The length of the engagement varies, the minimum being one week, the amount of time necessary for cooking and other preparations. The ritual part of the marriage process begins on the Thursday or Friday before the actual wedding with the baking of a special bread called a korovai. On Saturday, or on Friday and Saturday morning, if there are many guests, the bride and groom, often accompanied by a friend, the druzhka in the case of the bride and the boiaryn in the case of the groom, walk the village with another ritual bread, the shyshka, each summoning his and her respective wedding guests. Friday evening is usually devich vechir, a party during which the bride bids farewell to her friends and she and they make the hiltse, a ritual tree which graces the table during the wedding. Saturday is the day for signing the civil marriage contract.

Sunday is the day for the church service, if there is one. The main ritual, whether the civil or the church ceremony, is followed by a separation of the couple and the fetching of the bride by the groom’s wedding train. In most cases, the groom takes the bride back to her own home and leaves her there, returning with his friends and family to his own house. A meal is served at each house, after which the mother of the groom dispatches him and a special train (poizd) to the home of the bride.

This train is met with mock resistance, especially at the gates of the bride’s house, and the groom has to pay a ransom, usually horilka and small amounts of money. After the ritual resistance, the groom’s wedding train is admitted, and after further demands for payment from the groom, permitted to join the bride’s family at the table.
A more elaborate meal is served and the bride’s wedding cake (korovai) is cut and distributed, with the guests offering gifts in exchange for horilka and pieces of the cake. After the meal, the party, now bride and groom together, travels to his home for more food, drink and dancing. Often, this trip back includes the ceremonial delivery of the bride’s wedding chest, called a sunduk or skrynia, and a ritual procession with a special pair of icons, draped in rushnyky. A final meal at the groom’s house is the occasion of the cutting the groom’s korovai and its distribution among the guests, along with horilka, speeches, and more gift-giving. The morning after, there is a ceremonial breakfast for the bridal couple, sometimes accompanied by remnants of proofs of virginity.

The solemn part of the wedding is followed by a period of frivolity, variously called kury, tsyhani, tsyhanshchyna, vechirky. It can take the form of a period of general thievery and mischief, where wedding guests steal chickens and other small food stuffs throughout the village, bring them to the house of the groom, and prepare and consume them. Sometimes wedding guests “attack” all those who chose to return to normal life instead of continuing the wedding celebration. They visit their homes, take gates off of hinges, hide equipment, and commit other pranks. The most popular form of post-wedding license is the tsyhanshchyna like the one I witnessed in Hrechkivka, Smilians’kyi raion, Cherkas’ka oblast on August 23, 1998. We were driving down the street when we noticed people in costume. At the door of one of the houses was a man dressed as a doctor. He would administer medical “aid” to anyone entering and collect a fee. The “aid” consisted of taking the guest’s temperature with a broom handle “thermometer”, “injecting” him or her with water, and then applying iodine/lipstick, thus marking all who had been subjected to the entrance ritual. Inside the yard were many people, a few in costume, and many quite inebriated. A meal was served which we did not attend. We joined the party several hours later. At this point they were walking down the street. Several young men were pulling a decorated cart in which were seated the parents of the bride. The groom, we were told, was an orphan. If this had not been the case, his parents, would have been the first to suffer a cart ride. The cart and the men/horses were accompanied by a large procession, many of whom were in costume at this point. Some were dressed as gypsies, the source of the term tsyhanshchyna. Several were cross-dressed. Several were dressed in rags or simply had on extravagant makeup. As this procession headed down the street, the cart was intentionally bounced up and down or pulled over the roughest available terrain. Every-so-often, the men/horses would “rear up” and need to be given a drink of water/horilka. When they encountered anyone on the street who was not part of the wedding party, one of the costumed revelers would offer the bystanders food and horilka and receive a small gift for the bridal couple in return. The procession headed down to the river. The cart was actually pulled down the bank and into the water, where it was overturned, dumping the bride’s parents into the stream. Since the water was shallow where the cart was dumped, several men attacked the couple, especially the father, dousing him, trying to push him into deeper water, or trying to get him to fall so that he would get completely wet. The dunking of the parents was soon followed by general pushing and shoving, attempts to get people into the water with as much of their attire on as possible. Many people, the children especially, simply disrobed to their underwear and went swimming.

The tsyhanshchyna may seem silly and, during Soviet times, authorities exerted great pressure on people not to include it in weddings, objecting especially to things like the leading tractor driver of the village cavorting in drag. Nonetheless, it is an important and necessary part of the wedding. For one thing, a period of frivolity exists in all meaningful ritual, providing tension release and balance, sealing the serious rite with the magic of laughter. For another, there are many not-so-silly components to the tsyhanshchyna. The fact that the parents are “sacrificed” means that they are considered precious and this perpetuates honor for elders. Water magic, namely dunking the parents in the river and alternatives I heard in other villages, such as lowering them down the well, means that there is an element of weather and crop fertility magic to the tsyhanshchyna. In the tsyhanshchyna, Ukrainian villages have preserved elements of an ancient ritual of deep meaning.


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