"Ukrainian Minstrels: and the blind shall sing" by Natalie Kononenko
text by Koko Rakowsky
This "FAQ" of the traditional Ukrainian wedding was compiled by Tanya and Koko mainly for the benefit of the non-Ukrainian guests attending their big event. It gives you a pretty fair idea of how a contemporary Ukrainian-style wedding is conducted – the questions below are approached with humor and aplomb, and their personal touch is evident throughout the text. We thank them both for sharing this very useful information with the readers of Brama. Welcome to Tanya and Koko’s wedding!
This is my first Ukrainian wedding. What should I expect?
The Ukrainian marriage ceremony is rich with traditions that have their origins both in Eastern Rite Christianity and in Ukraine’s ancient pagan past. Many of the rituals you will see are steeped in mystery, and can be quite bewildering.
Plus, following a Ukrainian wedding can be even more difficult if you don’t know the language. (Out of respect for our families, our ancestors and our culture, Ukrainian will be the official language of most of today’s festivities.) So we’ve put together this little guide to help clue you in. And should you find yourself sitting at a table full of Ukrainians, have no fear. They all speak English and they’re all nice people. So don’t be afraid to ask them questions if you get lost.
So what did I miss?
Unless you are a close family member, chances are that you didn’t get to see a significant portion of today’s festivities. A couple hours before the actual ceremony, the bride, the groom and their families gather at the home of the bride’s parents for the Blahoslovenya—or "blessing." At the Blahoslovenya, the parents of the bride and groom convey their formal approval and good wishes to the young couple. It is here that the two families officially become one.
Isn’t it bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding?
We think not. Ukrainians don’t usually fall for superstitions like that. We also walk under ladders, smash mirrors, and step on cracks in the sidewalk. In fact, in Ukraine, people often stand on the street all day waiting for a black cat to cross their path. This alone may explain the country’s perpetually stagnant economy.
Why doesn’t the bride’s father walk her down the aisle?
Unlike most western marriage ceremonies, in which the father of the bride "gives away" his daughter, the Ukrainian bride and groom enter the church together. There are two reasons for this. First, the father of the bride has already given his blessing at the Blahoslovenya, held earlier that day. Second, it is tradition that the bride and groom enter the church arm in arm—as equal partners. This spirit of teamwork and equality has always been at the heart of Ukrainian marriage.
Why does it take so long for the couple to make it down the aisle?
The first part of the Ukrainian wedding ceremony, the Betrothal, takes place in the rear vestibule of the church. During the Betrothel, the bride and groom affirm that they are both entering this union freely and as equals. It is at this point that the priest blesses the wedding bands and places them on the fingers of the bride and groom.
Who are those two people carrying the icons?
The starosty are two friends or family members (one from each side) who preside over the wedding as official witnesses and masters of ceremony. Back in the days of arranged marriages, the starosty acted as matchmakers and were solely responsible for negotiating the union. Today, the starosty’s responsibilities are far more limited. They lead the wedding procession and carry the icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary into the church. These icons will eventually hold a prominent place in the home of the married couple, and will serve as the spiritual center of the household. At the reception, the starosty’s responsibilities include hosting the ceremony, offering the first toast, and repeatedly begging the guests not to clink their glasses with silverware.
Why are they singing everything?
St. Augustine once said that those who sing pray twice—a statement Ukrainians have taken to heart. The entire ceremony, with the exception of the sermon, will be sung rather than spoken.
What happens after the bride and groom finally walk down the aisle?
The front of the church is the scene of the final, most sacred portion of a Ukrainian wedding ceremony—the Crowning. It is during the Crowning that the bride and groom place their right hands on the gospel, exchange their vows and become married in the eyes of God.
What’s with those wreaths on their heads?
A Crowning just isn’t a Crowning without—crowns. These wreaths are usually woven from myrtle—a symbol of love, purity and fertility. They are placed on the heads of the bride and groom to signify the dawn of a new kingdom to be ruled by the couple—side by side. They also remind the newlyweds that their marriage is a partnership in Christ, and that they owe it to God and to each other to live a life of honor and love.
Why does the priest bind the young couple’s hands?
The hands of the bride and groom are joined with an embroidered cloth, or rushnyk, to signify their newly forged union. Once bound to one another, the couple circles the tetrapod (small altar) three times. This procession is called the "Dance of Isaiah," which reminds us that marriage is a never-ending journey.
These are the first steps the young couple takes as husband and wife, so it is only fitting that they walk around the tetrapod—a symbol of Christ.
Why do the bride and groom drink wine during the ceremony?
The couple drinks wine three times to acknowledge the importance of the Holy Trinity and to remind us of Christ’s first miracle at the wedding at Cana. The wine also symbolizes the sweetness of the love that flows from God.
Did you bring enough wine for everybody?
Where is the priest going with the bride?
Toward the end of the ceremony, the priest escorts the bride to the icon of Mary in the corner of the church. As the priest offers up prayers on her behalf, the bride kneels in front of the Virgin Mary and presents her with a bouquet of flowers..
As an alternative to rice, will the guests throw birdseed as the newlyweds exit the church?
Have you seen the size of the pigeons in Passaic? Thanks, but we’ll throw flower petals instead.
So when does the party start?
Champagne and strawberries at six o’clock. Cocktails at six-thirty.
The reception has just begun, and already there’s some big family reunion going on in the middle of the dance floor. May I ask why?
Ukrainian wedding receptions begin with a ceremony welcoming the bride and groom into the community. With all guests present, the parents and starosty meet the newlyweds at the door. They offer the young couple gifts of bread, salt, honey and wine. Bread represents nature’s bounty, salt is a necessity of life, and honey and wine stand for prosperity. The newly-formed family then joins in a toast. In accordance with tradition, the father of the bride will drink the most wine out of the group, because it is usually at this point that he realizes just how much this whole thing is costing him.
What’s the deal with that big loaf of bread?And where’s the wedding cake?
The korovai is a traditional wedding bread that symbolizes community, and it takes the place of wedding cake at a Ukrainian reception. In pre-Christian times, it was baked by the entire village as an expression of support for the newlyweds. The korovai is adorned with ornaments of baked dough: two birds to represent the couple, and other ornaments to represent family and friends. In the center of the korovai is a hiltse, or "tree of life," signifying life, fertility, and the building of a new nest. The entire arrangement is surrounded with a wreath of periwinkle, a symbol of love and purity.
What is that song everybody keeps singing, and why do we keep having to stand up?
"Mnohaya Lita." Get used to this song of good wishes, because you will hear it a lot over the course of the evening. "Mnohaya Lita" means "many years." (Its true meaning, of course, is "many happy years." The middle word, however, was deleted after it was decided that no song containing the word "happy" could truly call itself Ukrainian.) It is certain that you will be asked to stand up and sing "Mnohaya Lita" several times at a Ukrainian wedding. (Only the theme from "Rawhide" gets more airtime.) As a result of this frequent up and down motion, it is common for guests at a Ukrainian wedding to suffer from a bout with the bends. There is, however, no need for concern. At most Ukrainian weddings, there are more than enough doctors in attendance to treat the afflicted. And yes, all their Ukrainian mothers are very proud.
What is the band playing and why is everybody stampeding the dance floor?
At some point during this evening’s festivities, the band will roll into a few bars of a new song, and a funny thing will happen. Ukrainians will actually leave the bar. They’ll suddenly swarm the dance floor to form a large circle.
The shorter members of the throng will bring chairs onto the floor to get a better view of the action. And many of the male guests will calmly finish their drinks and take off their jackets (otherwise a big no-no at a Ukrainian reception).
All this activity is a sure sign that the kolomeyka has begun. The kolomeyka is a traditional Ukrainian dance that features a medley of leaps, kicks, and spins.
First timers at a Ukrainian wedding will note that the kolomeyka bears a striking resemblance to breakdancing. But unlike breakdancing, the kolomeyka has retained it’s coolness long after the end of the first Reagan administration.
One last question. Is there anything I can do to help Tanya and Corey on this, their most special day?
Yes. If it’s not too much trouble, the bride and groom ask that you take a moment to reassure both their mothers that the bright red trolley in which they arrived, the song to which they'll enter the reception hall, and the wedding program that you are currently reading -- are not "weird."