Afew weeks back, I recounted the story of a bachelor party I was organising for a friend of mine, fast-forward, to the big day. What’s On goes inside a truly Ukrainian wedding taking place in heartland Ukraine – the little city of Myrhorod, 250 kilometres west of Kyiv, in the Poltavska region.
United In The Eyes Of God
The church ceremony, or its Ukrainian equivalent – vinchannya, is optional and not legally binding, as 70 years of Soviet secularism means the tradition of the registry office remains. Post-independence, however, the church ceremony is regaining popularity. The ceremony symbolises the UNI0N of two souls in the presence of God. Usually a vinchannya is held the same day as the civil service, but my friend decides to split them, having the church ceremony a day earlier.
At the church, the mission of the maid of honour and the best man include a couple of tasks. First, we hold huge candles that drip wax on our best duds. The first phase of the ceremony takes about 40 minutes and is easy compared to what follows. Handing the candles to the bride and groom, we stand behind the couple bowing and crossing ourselves every time the priest does.
Next is the tradition that requires the best man and maid of honour to hold heavy crowns above the heads of the bride and the groom. Without doubt this distracts from the ceremony and becomes a sort of sweepstake, as guests make bets on how long the best man and the bridesmaid are going to last. I am lucky to be a head shorter than the groom, and after being sized-up by the priest with a look that translates as “too skinny, too short”, he simply puts the crown on the grooms head, slams it down a little so that it sits firmly, does the same to the bride and continues the ceremony.
My female counterpart and I both feel relief, however as the ceremony ends the priest asks us to hold the crowns while the couple takes three ceremonial laps inside the church. I look comical trying to reach the top of my friend’s head, he bows slightly and the crown lifts a little making a distinctive sound of metal hitting something hollow.
The ceremony ends with the exchanging of rings, the priest then wishes them luck, health and they are free to go.
The next morning we are ready to go to the civil registry hall, and again there are a couple of rituals to perform. The first takes place at the groom’s apartment, where he asks his parents for their blessing. It is spoiled by a demanding videographer – the guy thinks he’s Spielberg and we spend half-an-hour just shooting the groom dressing. When the blessing does come it is very emotional, but two bottles of champagne take the edge off.
We get in cars around which the mother of the groom walks three times, showering them with candies, ensuring we make our way to the home of the bride safely. Once there, tradition dictates the groom and the best man have to “buy” the bride. At the door, we are met by the maid of honour who instructs us to fill three glasses – one with something dry, something bubbly and something that tinkles. The choices are obvious: the first glass is filled with sweets, the second is filled with the sponsor of the event – champagne, and money fills the third.
The next challenge is to complement the bride using a word that starts with a letter drawn from a hat, but we are tricked! We aren’t ready for Chinese and Arabic letters and have to pay a fine. After this the groom is asked to distinguish his bride’s lipstick-prints from others on a piece of paper, which have been secured to the wall. Of course, the right one is at the top and he has to jump to kiss it.
The final and the most humiliating task for me is to dance. The groom is told to sing a song about his bride while I dance like a ballerina in Swan Lake. My embarrassment provokes enough laughter to mean we’ve passed all the challenges and the groom can now see the bride and ask her parents for their blessing. The “buyout” is over and we set off for the registry office. Out of superstition the groom is told not to look back until we arrive.
The registration goes quickly with music played, more champagne drunk, rings put back on fingers, the presenting of bouquets and finally, officially, our couple are husband and wife.
I’m used to long photo-shoots but this one is something else – it takes ages. First there’s the photos taken in a park that play with perspective, resulting in the “bride positioned on the palm of the groom’s hand” type photos. Then the couple goes to a well to bind blue and pink ribbons to it in order to have healthy children, and on and on it goes, all of it punctuated with champagne that is becoming warmer and warmer in the summer heat.
The wedding photographer’s and videographer’s attempts at artistry start to grate: it’s hot, and the newlyweds are beginning to look like squeezed lemons. Demanding or not, they have been paid to do a job and their artistic temperaments will not budge for the comfort of their subjects.
Finally it’s over and we move from those behind the cameras to someone intent on hogging the limelight – the master of ceremonies at the wedding reception. He greets us at the entrance to the restaurant: a strange little man, his job is to officiate as MC, known in Ukrainian as the Tamada. Chiefly, he coordinates the “games” – search Ukrainian weddings on YouTube and you find they range from the tame to the highly sexual, involving such props as bike pumps.
Our MC first invites the couple to tear a piece of karavay (wedding bread) to find out who will be the head of the family and then accompanies them to the hall to be presented with gifts and envelopes to be put in box he repeatedly calls the “family safe”. As soon as everyone has taken their seats the endless toasts (and accompanying alcohol) starts. According to tradition the parents toast first, then godparents, then closest relatives are invited to the mic.
An hour later, and the drinks are flowing freely, but the bride has disappeared. It’s another tradition for guests to “steal the bride” and it’s the cue to start the infamous contests. It’s up to the maid of honour and the best man to get the bride back by completing three tasks. True to form and in front of several generations of people, the first game is lewd – to eat an apple without hands.
A Dirty Dance
The MC places the apple between my female counterpart and I, level with our nether regions. We have to bump and grind it up to mouth level and eat it. After a couple of minutes of what can best be described as dry humping, the apple falls but the audience laughs and we’ve passed.
The next game is even worse. We are given a candy with two strings attached to both ends. We reel the strings in like spaghetti and unwrap the candy, again using no hands. It goes without saying lots of slobber is involved, but we manage to complete the task.
The final game is dirty, this time both literally and morally. Two bars of chocolate have to be fashioned into the bust of the bride and a certain part of the groom by biting. With chocolate smeared and red faces, the bride has been saved to shouts of “horko” (bitter) by the guests signalling the couple should kiss.
After the couple’s first dance, more sexual subtexts await. This time it involves dancing with a CD stuck between foreheads – it’s tame compared to what follows. The final embarrassment involves balloons. First we have to inflate the balloons, and then as I sit on a chair with the balloon in my lap, the maid of honour has to go “on top” to burst it.
Fortunately, this is the final humiliation and the MC moves on to more serious issues. He invites the bride and her new mother-in-law for another ritual. The in-law has to take off the bride’s veil and replace it with a Ukrainian khustochka (shawl) to show from now on she has to deal with domestic life. Godparents then split karavay among the guests. The MC quips men can increase their potency if they eat a bud the bread is decorated with.
As soon as this ritual is finished the bride throws her a bouquet. This is not the same one she had at the ceremony, as tradition prohibits giving away the wedding bouquet. The groom does the same with the bride’s garter.
Before giving away the wedding cake, the bride dances with her father and in the middle of the dance the groom comes to steal the bride, shows her father is letting his daughter go. The wedding ends with fireworks exploding skyward and guests screaming “horko” to end the night with a kiss.
by Vadym Mishkoriz