Polish Wedding Traditions

Engagement

In Polish weddings the celebrations may continue for two or three days. In the past, the engagement ceremony was organized by the future groom as a formal family gathering, during which he asked his chosen lady to marry him. There was once a time when the union of a man and woman was more of a business deal than a union of true love.  Women who hoped to marry were expected to possess a tremendous  a fortune, small or large.  The women were expected to bring valuable possessions or worth to the marriage.  This wealth was referred to as a dowry consisting of money, jewelry, a deed to a  piece of property or other tangible items.    A poor young woman without a thing to bring to a marriage was overlooked when another woman had a substantial dowry.    The Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, celebrates the life of a man who helped three young women receive a dowry.  Legend has it that an impoverished nobleman had three daughters who remained unmarried because he  could not provide them with dowries.  St. Nicholas, after hearing about this, took gold pieces from his coffers and on the night of December 5th, threw them into the window of the house.  Starting with the eldest daughter he continued this gesture.  In essence, he gave them a dowry and they were able to marry.  This was the beginning of the special fund referred to as the coffer of St. Nicholas.    This dowry fund continued until 1932.   The young man in search of a wife, often sought to improve his social and financial status.  The woman were expected to bring their dowry, including clothes for herself and other items useful in establishing a home.  Hence, a Hope Chest was established.  Originally referred to as a dowry chest.  The oldes type of Hope chests in Polan date back to the fifteenth century.

Hope Chest Items:

Table Linen, Table Linens for Serving Coffee, Blankets & Bedding, Bed Linen, Towels, Silver cutlery pieces, Everyday silver cutlery, Glassware & Personal clothing.

Betrothal:

Once agreements of marriage were made, a small party or engagement celebration was held to officially announce the betrothal.  This was usually held on a Saturday evening at the home of the bride.  The betrothal was considered very serious, synonymous to being married.

In ancient traditions, before rings, there was the blessing of joined hands over a loaf of bread.  This symbolic rite was called zrekowiny, “hand binding” ceremony.  The table was covered with the best white tablecloth in the home. The bread was placed upon the table and the bride & grooms hands were joined together over the bread.   Their hands were then bound together with an embroidered towel made specially for the occasion.

In the recent years this custom has changed and today an engagement is much more personal and intimate. An elegant dinner party afterwards is still a nice way to inform the closest family members about the couples’ decision to get married.

Rings:

Stones were associated with certain beliefs and extraordinary powers.

amethysts – protected the wearer against drunkenness.

chrysolite – chased away nightmares

pearls – helped to relieve melancholy

garnets – gave joy to the heart

topaz – soothed anger

One of the oldest symbols of plighted troth from the Renaissance period in Poland  was the “hand in hand” setting.    Crafted in gold or silver.  When clasped together on the wedding day with the engagement ring, on the finger it revealed two hands clasped together.  A symbol of the marriage union.

Placed upon the 4th finger of the left hand as it was believed that a vein in thus finger led directly to the heart.  However during the fifteenth century, the ring was placed upon the 4th finger og the right hand.  This became a tradition.

In some regions of Poland the tradition to invite the wedding guests in person is still upheld. Many young couples, accompanied by the parents, visit their family and friends to hand them the wedding invitations personally.

According to the old tradition a groom arrives with his parents at the house of a bride just before the wedding ceremony. At that time both parents and parents-in-law give a young couple their blessing. The couple enter the church together and walks up to the altar followed by two witnesses and the parents. In Poland it is quite unusual for the bride to be walked down the aisle or to have bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding. The couple is assisted by two witnesses, a man (usually grooms’ side) and a woman (usually brides’ side) who are either family members or close friends.

Wedding Bouquet:

In old traditions, the bride carried a beautifully bound prayer book given to her as a gift from her groom, or perhaps  a rosary, in place of flowers.  However, in the 1830’s the bouquet became popular.

Traditionally, the wedding flowers were purchased by the groom.  The Church flowers usually consisted of red & white carnations. Red & White being the Polish colors.

The Brides also wore wreaths of myrtle, rosemary and roses over the veil.  The wearing of the wreath on one’s wedding day is a Polish tradition that was continued for over a thousand years.  It was customary for young, unmarried girls to wear wreaths in their hair for almost all special occasions, such as church and local dances.  The wreath was a symbol of the unmarried, virginal state.  The Bride weaves her wedding wreath on the Maiden Evening (night before wedding) in front of her attendants.

The groom & groomsmen wore a boutonniere made from myrtle and tied with a white ribbon.

Church Ceremony:

Originally the groomsmen & bridesmaids of Poland entered the church first and made an arch with their hands, the bride and groom would pass through on their way to the alter.  Each pair of attendants following behind through the arch until only one remained, the last pair joining hands and followed everyone else down the aisle.  The bride & groom knelt in the center of the sanctuary.  Bridesmaiids & groomsmen paired off behind and to the left & right with the youngest attendants staying behind them, centered behind the bride & groom.  A white cloth was placed under the couple’s feet as a sign of recognition.

After the wedding ceremony, the newly married couple faces the congregation and exits the church as man & wife.    However, before departing the church, the newly married young woman visits the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Before the congregation stands, the prelude to Ave Maria is begun.  It is at this time when the Bride receives the special bouquet of white lilies, a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from her Maid of Honor.  She slowly walks to the altar placing the bouquet and kneeling at the foot of the altar to pray with bowed head.    She prays for health of her new family and vows to be a good mother to her future children.    Upon conclusion of the Ave Maria the bride unites with her new husband and faces the congregation to begin leaving the church.  The bridesmaids and groomsmen line up across each other creating a color guard for the newly weds to walk past.

The Polish bride traditionally wears a white dress and a veil. The groom, on the other hand usually wears a fitted suit with a bow tie and a boutonniere that matches the brides’ bouquet. During the ceremony wedding rings are exchanged and both the husband and wife wear them on their right hand. When they leave the church the guests toss wheat, rye or oat grains as a symbol that they may always have plenty, especially bread. Nobles and monarchs customarily tossed coins at the married couple for good and prosperous future together.

Once all the guests have showered the couple with kisses, hugs and flowers everyone heads to the reception. It is a custom in Poland to prepare “passing gates” on the way to the reception for the newlyweds, who in order to pass have to give the “gate keepers” some vodka. This is a misinterpretation of an earlier tradition, when the “passing gates” were built when the bride was an orphan and money collected by “gate keepers” from the guests was handed over to the bride as her dowry (being orphan implied usually poverty).

The married couple is welcomed at the reception place by the parents with bread and salt. The bread symbolizes the prosperity, salt stands for hardship of life, the parents wish the young couple that they never go hungry and learn how to deal with every day hardships together. The wedding party lasts (and the bride and groom remain) until the last guest leaves, usually until morning.

Reception:

Most common about the feast is simply that the guests lack for nothing.  Meats, fish, sweets and spirits such as beer, wine and vodka are very common amongst the choices.  According to old Polish traditions, the wedding feast should have at least ten different items on the menu.

Oczepiny: The Unveiling and Capping Ceremony

The most significant custom associated with a Polish wedding, the Czepek, the cap of the married woman , was placed upon the head of a young Polish bride.  One of the most important and oldest Polish wedding custom.  Removing of the veil (unveiling) and the placing of the cap (capping) is a rite-of-passage from young woman to married woman.  By removal of her veil or wreath and the placement of a cap or bonnet, she enters the ranks of married women.  Traditionally, the cap was made by the brides Godmother.  There are many different variations of the cap throughout history.  The most common used nowadays is a round cap that pins upon the head.  Usually made out of  satin or lace.

This takes place late into the evening after some music and dancing have comenced.  The Bride sits in the middle of the dance floor facing the guests.  The maid of honor, usually designated to do the honors, stood behind the bride.  The maid of honor was sometimes helped by the bride’s new mother-in-law.    Single girls stood next to and behind the bride and maid of honor to lend support.  Married women lit small candles and surrounded the bride and her single friends while the veil was removed and joined in signing.  The band/music begins and the maid of honor starts removing pins holding the veil or wreath in place.    Very popular in the United States is the Twelve Angels Song, (Rosnie Trawka – The Grass Grows), or (Dwanas’cie Listeczek – Twelve Leaflets).  As soon as the wreath or veil is removed from the brides head, the bride is surrounded by the unmarried girls who sing.    As the cap is placed upon the brides head, she is accepted into the circle of married woman, officially becoming a married woman.

Money Dance:

In Poland  the czepek dance took place after the oczepiny ceremony in country weddings.  Guests pay money for the privilege of dancing with  the bride.    when the groom paid for the privilege of a dance with his new wife, it signaled their exit from the festivities.  Festivities continued long after the bride & groom departed.

Wedding Cake:

A wheat cake or biscuit was baked and broken.  The first bites eaten by the bride and groom.  The remainder of cake was broken over the bride’s head.  Guests gathered up the crumbs and ate them.  The cake was made with wheat flour as a symbol of fertility and the earht’s abundance.  Meant to guarantee the bride and groom a life of prosperity and many children.

Bouquet toss:

Although this custom has become more modern, the tossing of the bouquet, traditionally – since the bride did not carry a bouquet, she tossed her veil to the bridesmaids.  The bridesmaid whom caught it would be the next to marry.

More on Polish Wedding Traditions: http://www.polishamericancenter.org/Customs_Frame.htm

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