The Traditional Bulgarian Orthodox Marriage in the Past

A traditional Bulgarian marriage involved two "cycles": engagement and marriage proper. The engagement was something of a legal event, it represented a form of bargaining, a deal and fulfilment of the material terms and conditions by the two parties. The wedding itself was an official and public confirmation of the contract. Both rituals were characterized by a good deal of theatricalness, especially the wedding ceremony which was characterized by a mixture of elements of a symbolic, magic, and artistic (dramatic, musical, poetical and choreographic ) nature.

Irrespective of their "buy-and-sell" aspect, marriages in the countryside were concluded mainly for love, while in the towns the prevalent principle was the class-related and mercantile one.

The engagement was initiated with "reconnaissance" visits to the girl's place. Confidants of the candidate tried to find out what either parents and girl thought. The talks were kept in secret, since their outcome was not always predetermined. The moves of both sides were full of mystery and allegory. The guests would give a sign as to the aim of their visit by sitting next to the fireplace and starting to rake the coals with the iron-tongs. Consent was expressed by the phrase "Let us see", acceptance being at least once delayed. The proposal was declined by saying that the girl was too young to be married.

Provided an agreement was reached, the messengers of the suitor presented the family with money and gifts, and the girl's family, in turn, gave dowry in cash or kind - goods, livestock, or real property. With this - according to common law - the marriage contract became effective.

The festive engagement ritual was already a public event and was accompanied by feasts, music and frolic joined in by many near and dear. Only under most extreme, scandalous circumstances could an engagement be broken off. The period of time between the engagement and the wedding was short - several weeks, as a rule. Intermarriages of people of different religions were not practised. The "breakthrough" in this respect dates back to as late as the 19th century, when Bulgarian students abroad started marrying women of German, Czech, and other nationalities.

All wedding rituals had a specific meaning and were performed by strictly appointed persons, although the personage varied from region to region. Along with the bride and the bridegroom, "central parts" were played by the sponsors, the bridegroom's brother and sisters, etc.

The marriage proper would begin with a ceremonial invitation of the guests. The people who performed this task were decorated with towels across their shoulders and carried a wooden vessel of wine (baklitsa) and containers of brandy. In smaller communities practically everybody around was invited.

Meanwhile, a ritual baking of the festive bread was underway. The baking was done by young women at both places, all the rites being accompanied by "tradition-blessed" songs. The next point was the making of the wedding banner, again by young girls. The banner was white, red, or white and red, its top being adorned with flowers, a gilded apple and an onion. In most places a wedding tree was also set up and decorated with blossoms, ribbons and gold-foiled fruit. It was carried by every wedding procession and was usually placed in front of the most respected wedding-guests. At the sponsor's place wreaths were made to keep from the evil eye and other troubles. During the church service, they were placed on the heads of the young couple, who did not remove them while following the way home.

Before taking the bride out of her father's home, a group of girls, her friends, would unbraid her hair, comb it and plait it again filling the room with resounding ritual wails and songs. On his part, the bridegroom would be ritually shaved by his friends, even if he was still beardless. This ceremony also involved singing songs, the ritual being regarded as the end of single state. The boy's or girl's farewell parties popular in Europe were rare in Bulgaria.
The dressing of the bride (naturally with her finest garments) and her trimming with adornments, wreaths and other embellishments was also accompanied by heavy ritual trappings. Finally, there came the veiling (with a thick red cloth showing nothing through) - a symbolic "isolation" of the bride from the outer world, and of the world from her. Since the beginning of the 20th century the red fabric has been replaced by fine manufactured tulle.

bridal headgear /the Eastern Rhodopes/

bridal headgear /the Eastern Rhodopes/

The wedding-guests on the side of the bridegroom, who came to take the girl, would find the gate closed. In order to get in, the lad's company was supposed to show some kind of skill - to get the bride's banner down from the roof of the house, to wrestle with the brother-in-law, or just pay ransom. The bride was also guarded by her girl friends who would have bolted the door and would not let her out until they were paid ransom. Besides, the bridegroom usually presented his bride elect with shoes, which she wore at her wedding

Crying, the bride took leave of her parents bowing to them and kissing their hands, and they kissed her on the face. The music would strike up a song full blast:

"Fir tree is winding and bending,
Lassie's taking leave of her kin folk..."

The girl's relatives would throw over the young couple grains of wheat and millet, walnuts, dried fruit, cheap coins - for fertility and wealth. The same ritual was repeated on going out of the church and during the reception ceremony at the bridegroom's place.

The priest would meet the young couple outside the church and would lead them to the lectern (a tall narrow table with an inclined surface). The bridegroom stood on the left, and the bride on the right side of the priest who would bless them with two lit candles and offer up prayers to God to bless their love as husband and wife. The exchange of rings was a pledge and sign of the indissolubility of the union they stepped in. Then the priest would crown the bride and bridegroom, bless them once more and read some passages on marriage from Apostle Paul's writings. In conclusion, the couple would drink from the handed glass of wine (a ritual symbolizing also the Holy Communion) and would go round the lectern making three circles "giving expression to spiritual joy and exultation".

On the arrival of the newly-married at the father-in-law's place, they entered the house stepping on a white cloth or some other stuff. The mother-in-law welcomed her daughter-in-law with two loaves of bread under her arms (and often with honey or butter and apples). Inside the house, the young wife bowed to the fire-side and "dropped" in it the bread given by her mother-in-law. The young wife was given to carry a little boy - so that she would give birth to a child, a male one at that.

For some time she had to keep silent in the presence of her father-in-law, her husband's brother, the sponsor, etc. In the distant past this "silence" would last for weeks or even months, and the rite's ending, termed pardon, was marked by a feast. To break this silence was considered both sinful and disgraceful.

The nuptial bed was made ready by the bridegroom's sisters /zalvi/, who would sit on it until he gave them some money. In many places, during what followed there was eavesdropping behind the door and soothsaying about the child to be born. The wedding drama culminated in the moment of intercourse, after which the floodgates were opened for a frivolously joviality, taking very often an orgiastic form.

Defloration had necessarily to happen. If the young husband failed to do it, it was believed that some witchery had been done against him. In such case defloration was performed by some experienced old woman. The newly-married husband was to proclaim the success of the act by a gunshot which raised the pitch of frolic fever even higher. The nuptial gown was displayed to the wedding party, every one of them leaving on it some money for the bride, while her parents were given a decorated ram or billy-goat. The attending guests were treated to sweetened, mulled brandy. The bride's relations made sham attacks on the bridegroom (as a form of "revenge" for the lost virginity).

If the girl turned out to be "dishonoured", the guests would leave immediately. One of them, however, would get onto the roof of the house and proclaim to all people, cattle and nature around that there was big trouble in this house. Sometimes, the girl was sent back to her parents, and but rarely was there public stigmatization. All this was done in the belief that she had brought misfortune not only to the two families, but also to the whole village.

Wedding festivities, which included much feasting, dancing, singing and wasted gunpowder, lasted for at least three days winding up with the unveiling of the bride and her going to the fountain to fetch water.


Stealing a girl with the purpose of marriage against her will was considered a grave crime in local customary law. It was punished with confiscation of the property of the would-be bridegroom and his accessories. Moreover, the stealing could lead to a bloody retribution on the part of the girl's relatives, even if she had not been dishonoured.

Indeed, abduction was a common practice, but only by mutual agreement between the two lovers. In such cases the lad gathered a few friends on horseback. They would "steal" the girl either in broad daylight, when she was in the fields, or at night from her father's house. During the wedding ritual, the bride had to confirm to the priest or the local chiefs at the place they had fled to that everything was done in pre-arrangement.

"Stealing" was practised when the parents were opposed to the marriage. In such cases the wedding ceremony lacked veneer, relations between the two families that had become kin in this manner were smoothed in a relatively short time. Abductions were also arranged with the purpose of saving too much outlay needed for the usual wedding ritual. In the 19th century almost half of the marriages in the neighbourhood of the town of Kyustendil, Western Bulgaria, were done after this pattern.

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Naturally, in our day the rituals from the past have been transformed - under foreign influence and as a result of the general process of modernization. Nevertheless, in some weddings the young couples, demonstrating artistism and loyalty to tradition, thoroughly replicate the popular custom. Such was the case of a wedding ritual that took place in Momchilovtzi, Smolyan region, in 2008 These two young poeple, both university students, chose to marry according to the folk tradition.


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