Polish Wedding Customs

Marriage in old Poland was at a young age, and it was shameful when a person was of marriageable age and was not spoken for by the time Gromniczna (February 2) had rolled around. There were many ways for parents in the different areas of Poland to announce to the world that they had a daughter now considered old enough to be married. In the Krakow region, the homes were painted a sky blue color to indicate an eligible young lady lived therein. In other areas, one side of the house was dotted with whitewash, or dappled; others whitewashed the fence; in the Tatra mountains, a wreath was added to the front door of the home; in Kurpie, the front yard was decorated with sand arranged in flower patterns.

The first part of the intricate courting and marriage customs is called 'Wywiady' or 'Zamowiny' the inquiry and proposal. Initiated by the young man who wished to be married, this custom indicated to him whether or not a certain young lady welcomed his intentions. All such endeavors were undertaken by the village/town intermediary, similar to the yentls of the Jewish community. Wishing to spare himself any embarrassment, the young man would ask the family Babcia or a village wise woman called a swata orstaroscina to conduct the initial step. If the swata felt that the young woman involved, and of course her family, would welcome the attentions of the young man, she would pass on the information to the intermediary. If not, she would make her inquiries elsewhere.

The intermediary was usually an older man in the community, someone who was a respected elder, and who would be expected to negotiate with the prospective groom's best interests at heart. He was normaly the starosta or swat, it was his responsibility to see that all details of the courting, engagement, and handfasting went without a flaw, right down to the bedding down of the newly joined couple. In the old times, the swat was also a holy man, who co-performed the actual handfasting with the swata.

Nighttime was a very popular time for the pair to approach the prospective bride and her family. It is an old belief that, when something good or fortuitous takes place in your life, to not speak it aloud, for fear the spirits would become jealous and undertake to reverse your fortune. The darkness of evening provided privacy then not only from the gossiping tongues of neighbors, but also from the retribution of prank playing elves and faeries.

The swat and the prospective suitor knocked on the window of the intended's house. After being allowed into the house, they bowed to the parents, asked about everyone's health, and then made very indirect and discreet inquiries. While he talked, he brought forth a bottle of vodka called " gesiorka" that was made for just this special occasion. The bottle itself was topped with flowers, and a red ribbon was tied around the neck of the bottle. He would put the bottle on the table, and ask the young lady to fetch him a glass. If the girl left the room and never returned, or if the family did not accept the bottle of gesiorka, the visit ended and the young suitor left, knowing that his attentions were not welcome. If the vodka was accepted by the family, arrangements were then made for the young man and the swat to return and further discuss the details of the possible engagement.

The suitor and the swat would then return several days later, once again proffering the bottle of gesiorka. All persons present would then sit down to a dinner . If an agreement had been reached and the young lady accepted the proposal, she would then pour herself a glass of gesiorka, take a sip from it, and then offer it to her intended, who sipped from it as well. Without this sharing of drink from the common cup there was no agreement and no engagement. If however after all the discussions and negotiations, it was decided that the young lady did not wish to join with this young man, he and the swat would be served either a dark soup, such as czarnina, or be offered arbuz, ( watermelon*)

The wywiady was as binding as a marriage, and breaking one off was a very rare occurrence. To break off after declaring oneself was seen as shame and disgrace. Truth was held sacred, a pledge was your bond and you were honour bound to uphold it.

The evening before the actual handfasting was one rife with customs in Polish tradition. Called dziewczyny wieczor, the maiden evening, the future bride and her bridesmaids gathered to decorate the house, make boutonnieres of rosemary for the groom's kin, and cook for the wedding feast. However, the most important reason for the gathering was so the bridesmaids, kin, and friends could say goodbye to the young lady as this was the last night that she was a single woman, and to help her prepare her final wianek or head wreath and for making the rozga weselna the wedding branch.

A white table cloth was laid on the table at the bride's home, and the bride brought rosemary, myrtle and rue from the garden. All the girls took part in weaving this wreath; as it was the last time in her life the girl would wear this mark of the single life, great care and much spirit was put into the work. The elder women, led by the swata, then began baking the wedding breads the kolacz. These breads are used as we use wedding cake and no wedding is ever held without them. There are many baked so that all may share in the good fortune of the couple, generaly as the wedding party leaves for home after the celebration, bread is passed out to the people on the streetl. Circular in shape they were ornamented with small clumps of dough formed into roosters, chickens, hearts, and greenery. Two branches were made of dough and placed upright on the bread, symbols not only of the couple but also of fertility. Once these breads were placed in the oven to bake, the bridesmaids concentrated on the fashioning of the rozga weselna.

It was the job of the bridesmaids to got out and cut a juniper branch for the rozga. The maid of honour and the bridesmaids took it to the groom's house and presented it to him and his kin and groomsmen. All helped trim it down so that two branches extended from the main body of the branch. It was decorated with apples, nuts, flowers, and all sorts of ribbons. One side was designated as the bride's side, and it was tied with blue ribbons purchased by the groom. The other side was the groom's, and it was tied with red ribbons purchased by the bride. Two candles were then fastened to each side.

When the branch was decorated, everyone returned to the bride's house, where the candles were lit on the branches to indicate the arrival of the groom for his bride. As he entered the house, the parents of the bride led him to a table, which was covered with a white cloth, where a loaf of bread sat in each corner, and a bowl of salt adorned the middle of the table. He was offered a drink and given bread and salt as a wish that he and his partner never want for food and were ever protected from harm. The swat then went into the other room and escorted the girls out to begin the rozpleciny, or unbraiding ceremony.

The mark of an unmarried woman in most of Europe were the long braids she wore in her hair, and the wreath she wore on her head for special occasions. Now was the time to abandon her childhood, for the sight of her with long flowing hair signalled to all her transition, and the unbraiding ceremony solemnly marked this change in her life. The groom and his kin stood in a straight line facing the bride and her attendants. The swat took the rozga from the groom, and handed it to the bride, a symbol of her partner-to-be. She then turned and passed it to her bridesmaids so they could start unfastening the ribbons tied thereon for the bride's hair. The bride was then seated on a doughbox covered with a sheepskin, the newly-made wreath was removed from her head by the swata, placed over top of the rozga, and the unbraiding ceremony began. Usually her hair was unbraided by her brother or a male relative; in a pinch, the swat stepped in to do the work. Many tears were shed over this symbolic loss of carefree days, both by the bride and by her family and friends. Once completed, the guests returned to their homes to get a well needed rest before the festivities of the next day.

When the groom arrived the next day with the swat, his groomsmen, and kin, the swata and the bridesmaids began helping the bride to dress. She was seated on a stool so that her attendants could fasten into her hair the ribbons they had removed the day before from the rozga. A bouquet of rosemary, myrtle and rue was handed to the young woman, and she in turn removed a piece of rosemary to pin to the shirt of her groom. Prior to leaving for the place where the handfast was to be held, the bride and groom both bowed low to their parents, thanked them for their upbringing and "the bread they had been given", and were bestowed with blessings. Should either partner have a deceased parent, it was absolutely vital that the handfasting party stop at the cemetery on the way to the rite. Here a small meal was offered to the departed parent, and the news that a wedding was to take place was announced so that their spirit may join in the blessing and ceremony.

The procession of celebrants then left for the ceremony. Along the way the bride and her attendants showered the onlookers with hops or oats in some areas, so that they may share in the good fortune the couple now had.

In the most ancient times, the handfasting was called zmowiny, or agreement; it was later referred to as slubiny, a word that now means marriage. In places where the handfast is still practiced in Christian Poland, it is called merely zareczyny, or engagement, it's a period of time between stating of intent and a church wedding. Usually held in a grove or clearing, those invited made a circle around the couple, with each honor attendant standing by the couple's sides. A loaf of bread adorned the altar, flanked by two candles. The candles were lit, one by the bride and one by the groom. The swat and the swata joined the hands of the couple above the bread, and tied them with a white scarf . He then cut two large pieces of the bread for them to eat, dipping them into salt first. Wine then was shared, in the same fashion as the gesiorka had been, the bride drinking first, then offering the cup to her groom. When they had drunk, the wine was then spilled onto the ground, to be returned to the earth that had blessed them with one another, that she may share in the rite. Then the swat and swata held their hands over the couples's tied hands, and asked for the blessings of the spirits and ancient ones upon the union. The attendees then came forward and one by one put their hands over the couples' and offered their own blessings. When the last guest had done so, the swat and swata untied the scarf, held their hands above the couples' heads, and blessed them, asking them to honor their pledge to one another and to the universe, and pronounced them joined.

No longer a single woman, the bride was then handed over to the women of the village, who conducted the oczepiny, or capping ceremony. The cap was hand crafted and embroidered by the family Babci, or if the family had none, by the swata, for the bride. She was once again seated, and the women gathered around her, removing the ribbons from her hair. In some areas at this moment the groom and/or the bride's male family members would then cut her long hair. The cap was then fitted to her head, and she was pronounced a member of the circle of women. In current times this custom comes with much laughter and joking as the bride fights to avoid being capped.

After the wedding feast which could last for few days, the couple was escorted to their new home amidst much laughter and bawdiness by the wedding guests. The swata and swat would enter the new home first, followed by the attendants and the family members, just to make sure that all was in order for the couple's first night together. The bed was jumped upon, the pillows fluffed, and all this was accompanied by hoots and catcalls from the remainder of the party outside the windows. Once the joking was over, the swat and swata hurried everyone out of the house and locked the doors so that the pair could spend time alone together.

After a designated time together in which the couple spent their time settling in to their partnership, they would make the final ritual of the handfasting. The bride would present herself to the other wives of the village, and be formally accepted into the circle of women.

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* the Polish word for watermelon having two meanings: watermelon, and to meet with refusal

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