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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Marriage Customs

by Natasha Dmitrieva

"In a socialist society, marriage is free of religious and, to a large extent, obsolete, archaic rituals connected with church and superstition. Marriage becomes a celebration honoring the birth of a new socialist family." (Bolshaya Sovetskaya Encyclopedia, 1970)

Today, 37 years later, marriage is still a great celebration; however the ways of celebrating have become more diverse and the overall regeneration of Russia has affected young people's attitudes towards national weddings and customs.

The past and present of ZAGS

The Department of Registration of Civil Statuses, commonly referred to as ZAGS, began in December of 1917 under the decree that abolished the church order of marriage registration and handed the responsibility over to the civil authorities. In addition to marriages, ZAGS also registered births, deaths, divorces, changes of name and other "civil statuses."

Many people choose to get married in a church but it can only take place in addition to the ZAGS registration, therefore ZAGS is still the first step in the wedding planning process. Once a couple decides to marry they must appear at ZAGS in person to fill out an application for registration. The law dictates that the date of the wedding can not be earlier than one month from the day the application is filled out and submitted. This creates a bit of a scramble to apply in time for the more popular dates. On a chilly April night one may witness a considerable number of cars parked in front of a popular Palace of Marriage or ZAGS Department. These are couples who are hoping to be first in line the next day to apply for a June registration. This so-called "night duty" had become a new Russian pre-wedding tradition.

In addition to registering and choosing a date, couples can also utilize several services provided by the ZAGS department, including booking a string orchestra or planning a photo-shoot for the big day.

Although the actual ZAGS registration ceremony is rather short, it can be very moving. During this ceremony the couples exchange wedding vows and rings, sign the registry and are officially pronounced husband and wife. Of course the overall tone and feel of the ceremony depends heavily upon the artistry of the ZAGS official conducting the ceremony. Irina Muravyeva, Head of ZAGS Administration of Moscow, says of ZAGS officials, "every year they pass a retaining in drama schools where they attend short-term courses in acting and public speaking to properly conduct a beautiful marriage registration ceremony according to all norms of etiquette."

After the ZAGS registration ceremony the newlywed couple and invited guests usually observe additional traditional wedding festivities, including ransom of the bride, sharing of a wedding loaf (karavay), touring the city (progulka) and a wedding feast.

Ransom of the Bride

In Russia's distant past the ransom of the bride was a true folk theater performance full of national color. The bride's family would block the road several times during the groom's trip to the bride's house. They would not let him pass until he demonstrated some of his talents. He could be tested on strength, intelligence and various other skills. For example, he could be asked to saw a log that is blocking the road or solve a riddle proposed by the bride's family. If he failed any part of the test, he had to pay with coins or candies.

In modern-day Russia this ritual is usually performed on the way to the ZAGS department or on the groom's trip to the bride's house. The "setting up" of the ransom is conducted by the bridesmaid and the best man (called "witnesses" or svideteli). Today this custom is comprised of funny challenges for the groom, such as composing a poem for the bride, writing her name in rose petals, etc. Although this custom is light-hearted and fun, in certain Russian provinces a ransom literally means a ransom and occasionally passing by babushkas may block the road until the groom pays to pass through.

Wedding Loaf (Karavay)

The tradition of sharing a wedding loaf was borrowed from the ancient Romans. In addition to being a symbol of health and prosperity, karavay is also a way to find out who will be the head of the family. This is done by having the newlyweds each take a bit, without using their hands. Whoever takes the largest bite is considered to be the head of family. This tradition can be coupled with a champagne toast and the subsequent breaking of the glasses, which is considered good luck.

Touring the City

After the ZAGS ceremony is completed, the newlyweds and their friends and family go on a tour of the city. Most often they visit historical sites, drink champagne and take pictures. Most take this tour in a limousine, but others opt for more unique forms of transportation, like vintage cars, classic Soviet government cars like Volgas and Chaykas, horse carriages, boat rentals and even riding the metro.

While touring the city, many couples observe the tradition of laying flowers upon World War II memorials, therefore expressing gratitude for their lives and happiness. Another customary portion of the tour is the releasing of pigeons. This is a long-standing tradition that has been simplified over the years. In the past, pink and blue ribbons were tied to the pigeons. The groom would release the pigeon with the blue ribbon and the bride the pigeon with the pink ribbon. Whichever pigeon flew highest symbolized the sex of their first child. Today, most couples have abandoned the ribbons and instead choose to simply enjoy the symbolic beauty of the flying pigeons and seize the moment as a terrific photo opportunity. Other couples choose to release "fireworks of butterflies", specially prepared boxes of colorful butterflies.

After completing the tour, the couple arrives at the banquet, undeniably the key part of a Russian wedding ceremony.

Wedding Feast

The Russian wedding feast, or reception, is perhaps the most eventful portion of the entire wedding custom, comprised of many different elements and traditions, both Russian and borrowed from the West. The most important role at the reception is that of the toastmaster (tamada). Usually this role is placed upon a friend or relative who is famous for his or her verbal talents. Although recently many couples are choosing to give the job of tamada to a hired professional who specializes in conducting weddings and other festive events. Whether a hired professional or a close personal friend, it is the job of the tamada to introduce the guests, toast the newlyweds, organize singing contests and make sure that everyone is having a good time.

The feast begins with the tamada's toast to the newlywed couple, with cries of "Gorko!" ("Bitter") from the crowd followed by a kiss from the newlyweds. This tradition has a very long history. In the past, the bride would carry a tray filled with glasses of vodka for her guests. The guests would pay the bride for a drink and then yell "Gorko!" to confirm that the drink was in fact vodka and not water. After the drink the guest was entitled to a kiss from the bride. Although this tradition has been simplified, it is still the quintessential marking of a Russian wedding.

The music played during the feast is not always the expected traditional variety. Quite often couples hire a DJ to play everything from Sinatra to old Soviet hits for the 1970's. Although music plays a key role in the festivities, the newlywed's first dance is the main attraction. Some couples rehearse for months, amazing their guests with a waltz, tango or even a cha-cha.

Amidst all of the Russian customs, many couples add more Western traditions to their celebration. Traditions like the throwing of the bridal bouquet or garter, the cutting of the wedding cake and even observing the "something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue" tradition all became popular in Russia after perestroika.

It is the job of each individual couple to create the wedding that best suits them. Whether following the traditions of a Russian past or borrowing from modern-day Western customs, each wedding is unique and beautiful. There is a famous Russian saying that everyone remembers on New Year's Eve: As you celebrate New Year's, so you will spend it. There is no such saying about the connection between weddings and future happiness. It is only up to the newlyweds to make their life as beautiful as their wedding, so that years later they can proudly cry out "Gorko!" to their own children.