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On Russian Wedding Traditions of the Past
December 11, 2007 20:34

From time immemorial wedding was one of the most interesting and sophisticated phenomena of festive, ritual and everyday life of the Russia people. Being at once a clerical, secular and pagan festival, wedding became a turning point in life of the newlyweds and an unforgettable event for the rest of community. Wedding united people, making them more generous, jovial and heartfelt, and gave them rare sensation of the plenitude of life. This is why modern wedding still keep some traces of the ancient wedding rituals of Russia, though the meaning of the majority of rites has been lost forever.

Wedding Traditions of the Old Slavs

Very little is known about weddings of the pagan Rus. According to the famous Russian historian N. M. Karamzin, old Slavs usually bought their wives and did not observe any wedding ceremonies as such. The bride only needed to prove her chastity. The standing of a wife was almost like that of a slave: she was obliged to take care of the household, children and husband and could neither complain of her husband nor argue with him, but show utter obedience to him. After the death of her husband the widow was expected to burn herself in a fire together with the husbands dead body. A living widow was a shame for all the family.

The chronicler Nestor recorded the evidence of customs of the Old Slavs varying from tribe to tribe. Plural marriage was widely spread among the Slav men.

As time went by the living of pagan Slavs was becoming more complex, accumulating various believes and rituals, which came to determine their everyday morals and manners.

Wedding in Christian Rus

In the end of the 9th century Christianity was declared the official religion of the Kievan Rus. Following the dissemination of the new belief, the traditional Russian wedding ritual started taking its shape, but was not ultimately formed until the 16th century.

The major innovation that Christianity brought about to the wedding ceremony was its obligatory church consecration. Complicated symbiosis of Christian rites and pagan believes of the Slavs existed for centuries.

The 16th century saw the formation of complete wedding ritual with definite stages, list of wedding titles (members of the wedding), symbolic attributes, certain style of dresses and food. Peculiar wedding folklore was also accumulated.

The traditional marriage ceremony starting with matchmaking went on with the examination of the bridegrooms household, the presentation of the bride, deal, betrothal and spree. Then the Marriage service at church preceded by a hen party and a stag party came. The church wedding ceremony was followed by numerous wedding feasts. The major wedding components had different names and combined with each other in different ways in various places. All the rites were observed only in that case if at least for one of the newlyweds it was the first marriage. If widows or widowers got married, then the ritual was very much simplified. Unlike the first marriage, the second one was not cloaked in a sacred aura.

Almost all the attributes of a wedding ritual had hidden magic meaning and served as tangible symbols of abstract notions and relations.

Majority of wedding customs were inherited from the pagan Rus; others came about with Christianity. Considerable part of the rites and attributes of the Russian wedding was adopted from other countries. Thus, in antique nuptials there were also wedding rings and bridal veils, candle lights and wreaths, gifts and joining of hands. The custom of showering the newlyweds with hops, seeds and coins also came from the culture of Antiquity. The traditional Russian round loaf as a symbol of marriage was adopted from the Old Romans: in Rome the bride and the bridegroom were to taste bread of dough kneaded on salted water with honey.


    1) S.P. Golubechkova. "Old Russian Wedding". 2004
    2) "Russian Wedding". Engraving by K. Vagner after drawing by E.Korneyev. 1812.
    3) Painting "The Boyar Wedding" by N.V. Ivanov


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