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A Polish Wedding in the 17th Century
A Polish Wedding in the 17th Century
The Polish culture has always showed great respect for family and old people. There were not many old people in 1600. Half the children died and a third more women died in childbirth. Adults died in epidemics that no longer exist. There were no 'cures' for tuberculosis or any other infectious disease, including smallpox. Only a fifth of the people lived to be 30 though those who made it to “middle age” lived as long as people do now.
Even old people who were vituperous or gossips in their younger days or whose husbands had fought with them were treated well. They could say things to the grandchildren like “I'll hit you in the face so hard your mother won't recognize you,”1 or hurl curses at grown children. “You make me believe in Satan.” An old lady could call the girls horrible things and the boys, sons of those horrible things.
But the children would still call her Babcia, 'Grandmother' and talked to her kindly; showing her every respect, even when they cursed each other.
These old women had functions in the village besides cooking bacon with cabbage and beer. One job of the elderly woman was to make the zamowiny or do matchmaking. The houses of available girls were painted signifying the girl living there was old enough to marry.
The old lady would take a walk to see if the family would be interested, accompanied by an old man. Generally he was a priest. Together they were called a Swat and Swata. She would find the match and thereafter together they would oversee all the details of the wedding.
If the woman and her family were interested she would tell the young man he could visit with the priest himself. The perspective groom would come back in the night usually on a Sunday. This darkness was to protect the couple from jealous spirits and bad luck. The suitor would wear his best clothes and be accompanied by the priest.
He and the priest knocked on the shuttered windows. The father would come to the door, ask them in and they would sit at the table with the parents asking about their health and making small talk. But everyone knew why they were there. Once they 'advertised' it was a humiliation not to have an offer by February 2nd. Most weddings were held between the late fall and end of winter when there was plentiful food and little else to do.
They brought a bottle of vodka called the “gesiorka”. It had flowers on top and a red ribbon around it. The young man would put the bottle with flowers on the table, and point to the girl he wanted to bring a cup, to signify his intentions.
If the suitor was going to be rejected the young lady sent him off with 'dark' soup made with the blood of any animal from geese to rabbits, vinegar and dried fruit. She could also give him a watermelon from her garden They came from Africa and were very popular in the 16th century.
But usually if not already taken, a girl would have married the devil rather than be an old maid. Even if he was kind of ugly and slow she usually ran for that cup. If he was rough looking, and acting too but could support a woman, he was considered a good man.
Later if the priest and he sat down to a meal his sweetheart made and she and drank with him, they were considered practically married already. The two could not get out of it. This was taken as a pledge. The invitations were then given first to the brides maids and best men, then to the Godparents and finally everyone else.
The evening before the wedding was called the Maiden Evening. All the preparations and cooking were finished before the wedding. A white cloth was laid on the table. Round wedding cakes were made by the Swata, originally symbolizing the sun. All the bride's friends gathered to say goodbye and make a laurel for her head which would cast off evil spells. They brought a wedding branch for the groom. This was a juniper shoot called a rod. Juniper protected the couple from witches and evil. Both parties trimmed this until two off shoots were left on it. One side was decorated with fruit, nuts to symbolize marriage and abundance, flowers to symbolize wealth, and ribbons to protect from evil. The other was had nothing but red ribbons.
The groom brought the Juniper branch. The wreath was taken off her head by the Swata and placed on the juniper branch. The brother of the bride unbraided her hair as she went from the unmarried to married state.
Then next day was the wedding. Musicians played at the house of the bride, greeting guests. The groom arrived and the women began to dress the bride. They put the ribbons in her hair from the juniper branch. The red ribbons were another protection from witchcraft.
The bride wore rosemary meaning loyalty, rue for fertility, and myrtle which symbolized love, on her bridal dress. She pinned rosemary on the groom. They both thanked their parents for raising and feeding them, and received their blessings with holy water. This was regarded as very important. They stopped by the graveyard for any dead parents to leave them a small meal.
Then they walked or rode a wagon to the church singing while musicians played. They spread oats, a symbol of fertility on the way. In the church the handfasting ceremony and mass would take place. In ancient times it would take place in a grove or clearing. The guests made a circle around them.
In the church the bride and groom each sat by a candle with a loaf of bread. The Swat cut two pieces of bread to be dipped in salt. Bread was to symbolize prosperity. Salt symbolized healing, protection from evil, witches and protection from fires. The Swat and Swata then tied their hands together with a scarf.
The bride was expected to cry or it was thought she would have an unhappy marriage. Wine was drunk by the bride and then passed by her to the groom, and they shared the loaf of bread with salt. They spilled what was left on the ground so it could share in the ritual.
Then they lit up the wedding bread with candles. 2 The Swat and Swata asked for the blessings of the spirits and dead ancestors. Their families put hands one by one over the couple and offered their own blessings. Then the scarf was untied. The Swat and Swata blessed them again, told them to honor their pledge to each other and pronounced them married.
When they left the bride throughout hay and whoever it touched was thought to get married next. After the ceremony the house of the bride was opened with a song. The mother of the bride put holy water on the newly weds and gave the two bread and salt.
The feast was held for three days. Everyone got quite drunk. The couple sat at a table close to the icons. Before the wedding feast there were toasts all from one glass passed from hand to hand for good luck.
Then they danced. Traditionally the guests gave the bride household items that she put in her apron. Later they gave her money. First the wife danced with her father, then with each guest. Last she danced with the groom.
Grandmother then put a cap she had embroidered on the bride's head. It was very precious and would be buried with her. The ribbons were taken from her hair.
Finally the couple was escorted to their bedroom. The Swat and Swata went in first. The family entered next. The wedding party made noises and jumped on the bed and then left the couple alone as they began their life together.
1Polish Language Swearing & English Translation
2Evita Life Stories