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Polish Wedding Customs and Traditions

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Wedding customs in Poland have largely remained unchanged over the years. The rituals and practices associated with weddings here show the predominant influence of the Catholic Church as much as a healthy tradition of rural, communal life.

Matchmaking

As is the custom in traditional societies, marriages in Poland were originally arranged by families with the couple brought into the loop only at a later stage of the wedding. Matchmaking was often a contrived process with the groom or his family hiring the services of a village elder or older kin member who would initiate negotiations with the family of a prospective bride. This go-between went by different names in different areas, one of which was ‘swat’. After the marriage proposal was accepted, efforts were made to set a date. In the old days, the wedding season in Poland began in September and continued through the fall and winter except during the holy seasons of Advent and Lent. The reason for this was that after the passing of harvest season, most people had both the resources as well as leisure to plan and hold weddings.

Engagement period

In Poland before a couple gets married, they usually go through an engagement period variously called Oswiadczyny, Zareczyny or Zrekowiny.  In the earlier days, this involved a ritual included an uncut loaf of bread and a white scarf. The swat or the matchmaker would join the right hands of the couple above the loaf of bread and tie them together with the scarf. Then he would cut two pieces of bread for them to eat. Most commonly the groom would gift his bride with this ceremonial scarf. Following this, refreshments were served and small gifts were exchanged. The day after the engagement, the couple visited the village priest and the marriage banns were put up in the church. The period of engagement usually lasted for three weeks. Even though nowadays such elaborate engagement rituals are becoming less common, the engagement is , still considered an important part of the entire wedding process.

Pre-wedding customs

One of the most interesting pre-wedding customs is the unbraiding of the bride’s hair. Young maidens traditionally wore their hair in one braid symbolizing their youth and virginity. The night before her wedding, the bride’s mother and female relatives redo her customary single maidenly braid into two. This traditional wedding hair style symbolizes the new phase in the young woman’s life and the upcoming change in her marital status.

Then again it is also common for the bride-to-be and the groom-to-be to celebrate the last night of their being single with separate bachelor and bachelorette parties. During the bachelor party, the groom goes out and socializes with his guy friends at a bar where they have drinks, play pool or throw darts. During the bachelorette party, the bride either goes out with her girl friends or invites them to her house for a light meal and drinks.

The wedding

The wedding ceremony starts with the blessing. Traditionally the mother of the bride gives the blessing before the bride and groom head to the church. A crucifix, a lighted candle, a bowl of holy water and a sprinkler or a leafy tree branch are used for this ritual. The bride and groom hold hands as they kneel in front of their parents. The mother of the bride sprinkles the bride and groom-to-be with Holy Water, whereupon they make the Sign of the Cross. She then gives them the crucifix to kiss. The father of the bride and the parents of the groom may also bless the couple separately. After the round of blessings, the bride bids goodbye to her family members and the couple leave for the church.

The church ceremony in Polish weddings usually follows Catholic rituals. The bride and groom may arrive together or separately at the Church. The father of the bride gives her away at the wedding. After the priest has declared them husband and wife, the young couple leaves the church to the tune of the Wedding March of Mendelssohn or Ave Maria played by the organist. Also the bride on her way out throws handfuls of straw on the young boys and girls who followed the wedding party and it is believed that whoever they land on would be married before the others.

Next it is a time for congratulations as families and friends wish the happy couple all the good fortune and prosperity in life. Also guests may throw small coins to the young couple. This harks back to an old, pagan ritual but is still very popular. In the past people showered a young couple with grains or rice, usually millet for a good and prosperous future.

The Wedding Reception

One of the most significant customs associated with Polish weddings is the Bread and Salt Blessing. At the wedding reception, the parents of the bride and groom greet the newly married couple with a goblet of wine and rye bread, which is lightly sprinkled with salt. The bread represents the hope that the bride and groom will never go hungry. The salt is a reminder that life may be difficult at times, but that together they will learn to cope. The wine is a traditional symbol of benediction and carries the blessing that the couples’ lives are filled with health and happiness.

Yet another Polish custom associated with the wedding reception is the removal of the bridal veil, known as the oczepiny ceremony. The bride's veil is removed as she enters the reception hall, signifying the end of her maidenhood and her transition to a married woman. A funny hat may also be placed on the groom's head, representing the wish that the marriage will be full of happiness and laughter. Indeed If a Polish bride can drink from her glass of wine, and not spill a drop, she is considered lucky.

Music plays an important role in all Polish weddings which usually feature lively polka music and dancing. The "money dance" is especially popular where guests pin money to the bride's wedding dress to buy a dance from her. The newlyweds usually collect these gifts to use for their honeymoon expenses. More traditionally, the maid of honor wears an apron and collects the money given by the guest to dance with the bride. Guests who place money in the apron win the opportunity to dance with the bride. After all the guests have danced with the bride, they form a tight circle around her and have a lot of fun, trying to keep the groom out. After a time, the groom is expected to throw in his wallet, thus surpassing all the other contributions. He then breaks through, picks up his bride and carries her away from the wedding reception amidst a lot of clapping and cheering.