Russian Brides Cyber Guide
The Wedding; Day 1
You are probably surprised to find out that a Russian wedding lasts for 2 days!! (Well, at least. Some weddings last as long as a week, and this is something to be proud of and remember for years: it means the couple had enough liquor to go on and on, and enough devoted friends to stay.)
OK, about day 1.
The groom and the bride have their family and friends with them; it means, the groom's company meets at groom's place and the bride's company meets at bride's place. The groom goes to pick up the bride for ZAGS, and then they go go to the ceremony of "brakosochetanie" (this is a formal word that is officially used to name the ceremony when a bride and a groom exchange rings and put their signatures in the registry). But there is much more before they are allowed to go!
Traditionally the wedding is ruled by "witnesses". The best friend of the groom/bride usually acts as his/her "witness". Those witnesses must prepare a script for the wedding so guests are entertained all the time. They meet before the wedding a few times, make posters, write speeches and invent contests.
(As was said before, Russians marry early, usually when both partners are still at college or university. This tradition of an entertaining wedding comes from student traditions of making any event a real life comic script. During Soviet times there was a communist youth organization called "Komsomol" that was responsible for communist upbringing of the youth; it's aim was to develop community spirit in young people, and this organization did lots of things to make the life of young people real fun. Usually students worked in "stroyotryad" (temporary organized group of workers) during summer to make some pocket money and at the same time having "work experience" - seldom connected with their future profession, usually in building industry in the country side; this "third working semester" was mandatory for all students. Working and spending all spare time together away from home created a wonderful spirit of community in students. They arranged lots of performances and competitions between different groups inside the "stroyotryad" that made their lives very interesting and fun. Something like a scout camp for adolescents. During the study time at university people were still participating in "stroyotryad's" activities - different public actions, community and charity work, competitions, etc. This is where traditions of current wedding scripts come from.)
Back to the wedding. There are of course many "ready to use" scripts that are doing rounds from one wedding to another, and witnesses usually review a few to compose their own. A Russian wedding must be fun, or it is not a wedding. (I have attended a few western weddings including my own, and compared to Russian ones they are just plain boring.)
When the groom arrives to fetch the bride he must have some spare time until the ceremony as he is about to fight to get the bride. Russians live in blocks, and the higher the bride's apartment, the more effort the groom has to spend. There are posters with jokes about family life and wedding all over the walls on his way up made by the bride's friends. Each stair-well is a challenge for the groom - he must answer a question to be allowed to make those few steps up. It's a team work - bride's friends ask devious questions (sometimes about a bride, sometimes just difficult enigmas), and the groom must answer with the help of his friends. For example, he may be shown a few photos of baby girls and he must say which one is his bride. If he guessed wrong, he must pay cash to pass this stair-well. (If the building has a lift it will be usually blocked by the bride's team; but if the groom manages to find another way to the bride's apartment than the stairs, it's his right. He can climb up the wall or climb down from the roof - it would be much more fun but grooms are seldom that adventurous.) So it can be quite a tough intellectual task to get to the door of his bride. He can be also asked to sing, to dance or anything else. But eventually he will make it of course.
After the groom reaches his bride, they go to ZAGS for the ceremony of "brakosochetanie". Usually it's only the closest family and friends who accompany them (also depends on how many people the wedding train of cars have room for). The rest of the guests only join at the reception .
The groom and the bride go in the same train but in different cars. All cars are decorated with ribbons and balloons, often the bride's car has a doll on the bonnet, or two stylized golden rings on top of the car (one bigger and one smaller), or both.
Two crossed golden rings are Russian symbol of marriage that may be also seen on wedding invitations etc.
The ceremony in ZAGS is similar to what happens at a civil ceremony in the West - the bride and the groom will be asked if they want to marry each other, and they must answer "Yes", then they exchange rings, then they kiss each other, then sign the registry, then the witnesses sign. The official representative of ZAGS will say a few words of greetings, and play the official hymn of marriage ceremony - march of Mendelssohn. The guests who are present give flowers to the bride, and drink a bottle of Champagne.
Nowadays many couples opt for a marriage in a church but church marriages in Russia still do not have official status, and the church requires a civil marriage certificate to arrange the ceremony for the couple (the couple must be officially married by ZAGS before the marriage in church). So if the couple plans to have a church ceremony, they will usually go through the civil ceremony a few days before the wedding.
The Russian church ceremony is colorful and solemn but the complete traditional ceremony is very long, and as guests and the couple have to stand during the ceremony (there are no benches in Russian churches at all; people must stand during all church services), faints are not rare. Most couples wisely opt for a shortened version of the church marriage ceremony.
(The missing part in a Russian marriage ceremony, both civil and church, compared to the western one is the question if there is somebody who knows why those two people cannot marry.)
After the marriage ceremony the coupe leaves the guests for a tour around the city sights. Usually it's only the couple and the witnesses in one car but sometimes it may be two cars and the closest friends (seldom family: they must take care of the reception). The couple visits memorials in memory of people who died in the World War II or Russian Civil War of 1918-1922, other famous graves or memorials, and lay flowers there. (I think it's a very nice custom that makes people think and be grateful for what they have).
After 2-3 hours of the city tour the couple arrives at the reception. Depending on where it's held there will be more or less guests; with 30-50 guests for a home reception and 50-100 guests for a restaurant. Having more than 100 guests is not typical; guests at Russian weddings are usually only family and friends and not anybody you happen to know. Also traveling is expensive, and family members from other cities seldom attend weddings (though usually will attend funerals - strange, isn't it?). Tables for a wedding are moved together in the form of letters "T" or "Ï", where the couple and witnesses sit on the "top" (in the case of home reception tables sometimes go through one room to another). Next to the couple and witnesses sit their parents, then close family and friends, then the rest of the guests but seats are not prearranged exactly, people sit where they want.
First thing to start the reception is a toast. The first toast is of course for the new couple. One of the witnesses will announce the first toast, and then the parents have their say. Witnesses will also add some greetings, usually in the form of a poem, and eventually announce the toast itself: "Za molodykh!" ("For the newlywed!") Here we come close to the most popular and prominent Russian wedding tradition. For the first toast people usually drink Champagne, and after the first sip somebody says "Gor'ko!" ("Bitter!"); it means the vine is bitter. All guests together start to shout "Gor'ko! Gor'ko!" To make the vine sweet, the newlywed couple must kiss each other. They must stand up and kiss each other for as long as possible, and all the guests start counting "1, 2, 3, 4 , 5..." while they are kissing. If the couple was not kissing long enough, the guests can insist that the vine is still bitter, and request another kiss. This happens after almost every following toast, so the couple has lots of kissing during the wedding.
The second toast is always for the parents; and after a witness announced the toast, the bride and the groom have their say of "Thank you" to both bride's and groom's parents. (With another "Gor'ko!" and kissing afterwards.)
Then the witnesses continue running the wedding, reading jokes and poems, and sometimes asking the new couple questions to make fun of them. Witnesses ask one person or another to say the next toast, usually in the order how people sit, one by one. The pause in between the toasts is 5-10 minutes, when people have time to eat and talk, then the next guest gets up and says the toast. Usually when a person says the toast, he gives his gift to the newlywed. Traditionally money is considered as the best gift, and is given in an envelope. Some time after the beginning of the reception when people start to become drunk the witnesses will ask everybody to give their gifts and one of the witnesses will collect envelopes from the rest of the guests with a tray. Then the first part of the reception is over. During this part people only eat starters and salads but there are usually 10-20 different types of starters on the table, so no one is hungry (usually vice versa, after starters people must take a break of 1-2 hours before the main course to have space for it.)
Then people have time to dance. First dance is opened by the new couple. After the music starts, there is no exact script anymore, and witnesses can relax a little. They still occasionally announce a toast but do not entertain the guests with jokes and poems; guests by this time are already having lots of fun and are able to entertain themselves.
Movements become quite hectic; some people go out "to refresh", and at some moment in this movement the bride gets... "stolen"! She disappears, and when the groom starts looking for her, he is faced with a request for a ransom. Usually it's his buddies who "steal" the bride. A more or less short wrangle about the amount, and he can have his new wife back. But he must watch out - the bride sometimes may be stolen a few times!
Then there are the bride's friends - they steal the bride's shoe. The groom must pay ransom for the shoe too - the guests enjoy watching wrangles. (Sometimes the groom is having so much fun that he does not notice that his bride has disappeared; and his buddies have to tell him about it. Some grooms don't seem to care, and have their first marriage scandal on the day of the wedding - of course the bride participates in the "stealing".)
The music stops once for the time when the main course is served, then the fun continues.
There is no tradition of a wedding cake in Russia though they will probably adopt this western tradition soon; Russians enjoy rituals. They give a cake at the end of the reception (which most guests miss dancing and having fun; there is much more dancing at Russian weddings), but there is no custom of bride and groom cutting it together.
Often guests leave the wedding in such a condition that they cannot remember what happened. If this was the case with the majority of guests, then the wedding was a huge success :-)
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