Russian Wedding Traditions and Vocabulary

exchange of wedding rings white

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Russian wedding traditions are a mixture of ancient pagan rituals, Christian traditions, and new customs that have emerged in contemporary Russia or have been adopted from the West.

Russian weddings can have different traditions in different parts of Russia and can even be different in neighboring villages. However, there are some common rituals that are shared by most traditional Russian weddings, such as the symbolic payment of the bride price, the various games that are played before and after the ceremony, and the customary tour of the main historical locations of the city where the wedding takes place.

Russian Vocabulary: Weddings

  • невеста (neVESta) - bride
  • жених (zheNEEH) - groom
  • свадьба (SVAD'ba) - wedding
  • свадебное платье (SVAdebnaye PLAT'ye) - wedding dress
  • обручальное кольцо (abrooCHALnaye kalTSO) - a wedding ring
  • кольца (KOLtsa) - rings
  • пожениться (pazheNEETsa) - to get married
  • венчание (venCHAniye) - wedding in the Russian Orthodox Church
  • фата (faTAH) - bridal veil
  • брак (brak) - marriage

Pre-Wedding Customs

Traditionally, Russian weddings used to begin long before the ceremony itself, when the family of the groom, usually the father or one of the brothers and sometimes the mother, came to ask for the potential bride's hand in marriage. The custom was that the first three or so visits ended in a refusal. Interestingly, the details were never directly discussed at first, replaced by a riddle-like conversation along the lines of "our gander is looking for a goose, might you have seen one?" The answers were equally full of metaphors.

In modern Russia, this almost never happens, although there has been a resurgence in professional matchmakers' services over the last 20 years or so. However, most couples make the decision to marry on their own and parents may even find out about it after the ceremony itself. Once the couple decides to marry, an engagement takes place, called помолвка (paMOLFka). It usually lasts between one and three months.

Although most traditional customs have now been abandoned, one popular custom that remains is the ritual of the groom paying for the bride. This tradition has transitioned into modern times, becoming a game that bridesmaids play with the groom when he arrives to pick up his bride. The groom is given a series of tasks or questions and is required to "pay" for his bride in sweets, chocolates, flowers, and other small gifts to bridesmaids.

Once the groom has successfully completed all the tasks and "paid" for the bride, he is allowed inside the house/apartment and is required to find the bride, who is hiding somewhere inside.

Additionally, and sometimes instead of the payment game, the groom can be presented with a fake bride, usually a family member or a friend dressed as a bride. Once the real bride has been "found," the whole family drinks champagne and the celebrations begin.

The mother of the bride often gives her daughter a talisman, which is usually a piece of jewelry or another family heirloom that is considered to be lucky. This talisman is supposed to be passed on by the bride to her own daughter later on.

The Wedding Ceremony

The traditional Russian wedding ceremony, called венчание (venCHAniye), takes place in a Russian orthodox church after the official marriage registration. Most couples who opt to have a church wedding, have the registration on the day before the church wedding ceremony.

The traditional ceremony itself lasts about 40 minutes and adheres strictly to the church protocol.

The priest conducting the ceremony blesses the couple three times and passes them each a lighted candle which is supposed to stay lit until the end of the ceremony. The candles symbolize the joy, purity, and happiness of the couple. If this is a second church wedding for one or both members of the couple, then the candles are not lit.

This is followed by a special prayer and the exchange of the rings. The ring exchange can be conducted by the priest or the couple themselves. This part of the ceremony is called обручение (abrooCHEniye), meaning handfasting or betrothal. The couple holds hands, with the groom's hand on top of the bride's.

Next, the wedding itself takes place. This is the most important part of the ceremony and gets its name from the word венок (vyeNOK), meaning wreath.

The couple stands on a rectangular cloth (рушник) and makes their vows. It is thought that the first person to stand on the cloth will be the head of the family. The priest places wreaths on the bride and groom's heads and offers the couple a cup of red wine from which they take three sips each. Finally, the priest leads the couple around the analogion three times, which symbolizes their future life together. After that, the groom and bride take off their wreath and have their first kiss as husband and wife.

Wedding Rings

In a traditional Russian wedding, rings are exchanged during the betrothal part of the ceremony while the wreaths are placed on the couple's heads during the wedding part itself. The bridal wreath symbolizes purity and innocence. In northern parts of Russia, weddings were often seen both as a happy and a sad occasion, when the bride's old life ended and a new life began. Therefore, wreaths play a particularly important role in Russian weddings.

Traditionally, the wedding rings were made of gold for the groom and silver for the bride. However, in contemporary Russia, rings are usually gold.

The rings are worn on the ring finger of the right hand. Widows and widowers wear their wedding rings on the left ring finger.

Other Customs

Many Russian weddings, whether traditional or modern, end with a tour of the local area. The newlyweds and their families and friends pile into cars, which are often limousines, decorated with flowers and balloons, and drive around local attractions, such as monuments and historical buildings, taking photographs and smashing glasses for good luck.

After the tour, there is usually a celebration meal at a restaurant or at the home of the newlyweds. The celebrations and games often continue for several days, led by a party organizer called the тамада (tamaDA).