Weddings Across the Board…Polish Wedding Traditions

In choosing today’s ‘Weddings Across the Board’ traditions, I thought about the backgrounds of a few friends of mine and my friend Amber came to mind. Amber is getting married this Spring and is going to be a beautiful bride. I feel lucky to be one of her bridesmaids. I love that we met in 1995 and have gone through middle school, high school, college (both at PSU) and post-college life together and are still going strong 🙂 I don’t know if she and her fiance, Dave, plan to incorporate her Polish heritage into their wedding at all, but she may find it interesting- as I did- to learn about some of the traditions of her ancestors. As with other cultures, the rituals vary slightly based upon the region of Poland, and over time, some of the traditions have changed or been scaled back a bit (such as the 3-day celebration, which is now down to just 1 or 2) when incorporated around the world. Here we go…
When to Schedule A Polish Wedding-
   Most Polish weddings take place on Saturdays and continue through Sundays. The marriage ceremony and wedding reception for all guests are held on Saturday, while a smaller, more private party for close friends and family is continued on Sunday. There are no weddings during the 40-day Lent before Easter and during the Advent before Christmas, as those times are dedicated to penance and preparation for the most important Christian holidays, so there is not space for public celebrations and parties involving dancing. 

Bachelor & Bachelorette Parties-
These parties sometimes take place the night before the wedding, but mainly the Friday or Saturday a week or so beforehand.  The groom and his friends usually bar hop all night, and the bride and her friends either bar hop or have drinks and dinner at the bride’s home. 

Here Comes the Bride…and the Groom- 
   In Polish tradition, the bride & groom arrive at the church at the same time and walk down the aisle together. Long ago, the guests would also meet the happy couple at her parents’ house and they would all proceed to the church together. If a parent of the bride or groom was deceased, they would make a stop at the cemetery to invite the spirit of the parent to celebrate with them, and to ask for a blessing over the marriage. 

Transporting The Newlyweds-
Horsedrawn carriages were traditional at Polish weddings — the bride and groom used to ride to and from the ceremony this way, with the wedding guests following after them to the reception by foot. Sometimes, in a smaller village, they all walked together. 

Bread, Bread Wine (and Salt)-
  Before the ceremony, or at the beginning of the reception, the bride & groom’s parents give the couple a ceremonial gift of bread, lightly sprinkled with salt, representing the prosperity and bitterness that all couples encounter throughout their lives. This shows that although their life may be difficult at times, they can and must learn to cope with life’s struggles together. The parents may make a short speech and may also offer wine, wishing that the couple will never thirst and will have a life of good health, good cheer and the company of many friends. 

The parents then kiss the newly married couple as a sign of welcome, unity and love.

Best man=the Easiest Job-
 If you should be asked to be a best man in a Polish wedding, say yes. You don’t have rings to hold, a speech to give, any major responsibilities except for walking in a straight line behind the bride and groom along with a bridesmaid and holding some envelopes, and yet you get an invitation the the whole celebration. 

Reading Your Invitation, and Checking it Twice- 
 In Poland, you may get an invitation for only the ceremony, or you may get an invitation for the ceremony and the reception. Read carefully, as you don’t want to deal with the awkwardness of showing up for the whole party and then going home mid-afternoon bummed and confused.

Ceremony
  The wedding ceremony itself often involves a mass and includes the vows and blessing of the marriage. In Poland, both the bride and the groom repeat the whole pledge after the priest, who leads them and witnesses their vows. The bride and groom enter the marriage and make promises of love, faithfulness, marital honesty and never leaving the spouse until death. Polish weddings are both civil and religious; the wedding party would first visit a magistrate and then head to the church for the public ceremony. This is because historically, despite the fact that most Polish families are Catholic, the country would not recognize the marriage until the couple came to the magistrate. Today, the laws have changed slightly and couples may be able to have their officiant submit the union to the country while they go right from the church to the party!  

Throwing Money-
  After exiting the church, the happy couple are traditionally showered with handfuls of loose change. They are then expected to pick it all up. Yes, really. Starting out on married life groveling around on the pavement for pennies like bums is considered lucky, as it can only get better for the couple from there. At one point in the past, guests rained oats and barley down on the couple, and the bride would sometimes throw handfuls of straw onto the boys and girls in attendance. Anyone who was hit by straw first was believed to be married before all the others. Another belief was that the first bridesmaid to touch the bride after the ceremony would also marry that year. 

Signed, Sealed, Delivered-
  Despite the potentially humiliating experience of picking up change on the ground in front of all of their loved ones, the bride and groom keep smiling and chugging along, because what comes next is much better.  In Polish tradition, guests line up to pay their respects to the couple and show their congratulations. Many guests will bring the bride three kisses on the cheek and a bouquet of flowers, and will hand the groom a sealed envelope of cash. The bride hands her flowers to a bridesmaid and the groom hands the envelopes to the best man (pretty much the extent of his responsibilities for the day). 

Barricade-
  This is honestly one of the stranger rituals that I’ve read about and seems to be a newer addition to weddings in certain areas of Poland.  Once every guest had kissed and hugged the couple, it is time to head to the reception site, be it a restaurant, banquet hall, or one of the newlyweds’ houses. On the way to the destination, a popular custom is for guests to create barricades on the road by either with people or objects so that the couple cannot get by unless they give out food, vodka or money. They can be stopped multiple times before being allowed to pass and head to their party.

The Reception-
   Let it suffice to say that at a traditional Polish wedding, there will be a lot of food. Like, way too much. You should not attempt to eat everything served to you if you want to survive the night. You should regard the food as symbolic– a symbol of wealth and plenty, an overwhelming feast for the happy event. Sometimes, the groom will wear a funny hat at the reception, showing that the marriage will be full of happiness and laughter. 

Sto Lat-
   I’ve heard this song at many a birthday celebration with Amber over the years, and I love that it’s included in the wedding reception, too! PS I didn’t know what it meant until now.  So if the bride & groom do the salt & bread ceremony at the reception (which is common these days), all Polish guests in the vicinity will break into song. The song is known as “Sto lat” (“100 years”) and is the same song you will hear sung at birthday parties and presidential inaugurations. Here are the words — the song may be song multiple times throughout the reception, so get ready!
Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje/żyją, żyje/żyją nam.
Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje/żyją, żyje/żyją nam,
Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz, niech żyje/żyją, żyje/żyją nam,
Niech żyje/żyją nam!
which translates roughly into English as:
A hundred years, a hundred years,
We want him/her/them to live.
A hundred years, a hundred years,
We want him/her/them to live,
Once again, once again, we want him/her/them to live!
A nice little choir version of Sto Lat. 
Start at 1:30 to hear a longer wedding version of Sto Lat. 
Keep watching for some intense wedding kisses. 
Then the dancing begins. In Poland, dancing is required at weddings, and not just wiggle-sway-jump around-fist pump dancing. Traditionally, a wedding has called for proper dancing, in pairs. Dancing schools stay busy for this reason. Today, we may see slightly less formal dancing taking place, and I even came across a few videos on YouTube of Polish brides & grooms with fun surprise first dances like we might see here. 
The Money Dance- 
Polish wedding guests either pin money to the bride’s dress or veil, or hand it to the maid of honor, who places it into an apron that she wears, for a chance to dance with the bride. This money is said to go toward honeymoon expenses. Oftentimes, the dance starts with the bride & her dad, and may end with the groom throwing in his wallet, surpassing all contributions and winning! Alternatively, after her dad and all of the guests dance with the bride, they may form a tight circle around her while the groom tries to break through. Once he does, he picks up his bride and carries her away from the wedding reception (I imagine this happens at the end of the night)

That’s the Spirit- 
   Vodka is a big deal at Polish weddings and is only consumed collectively. Sometimes the night starts with zapicie, which literally means “to wash down” or “to drink”, and involves a glass of beer or vodka being passed from person to person. After that, it’s typical for all guests’ glasses to be filled with vodka, somebody to propose a toast, everyone to drink vodka and glasses to be refilled to prepare for the next toast.  Sometimes there will be a special vodka prepared according to a traditional recipe known only to an elderly relative, and sometimes plans for the vodka are the first step of wedding planning, even before shopping for the bride’s dress. Do not be tempted to fill in the time between vodka toasts with a beer or a glass of wine if you want to live! Also, it’s said that if a Polish bride can drink from her glass without spilling, the marriage will be lucky. 
This Wedding Takes the Cake-
The cake is cut and distributed to the overstuffed guests at midnight, or at some other random time. Then they might wheel in an entire roasted cow, just in case anybody’s ready for a snack. 
We’re Up All Night to Have Fun- 
   The reception usually includes polka music and dancing, and typically lasts as long as the guests want to stay, in most cases until 3 or 4 in the morning. Polish weddings are known for an unbelievable abundance of all kinds of foods and alcohol. In the past decades, Polish weddings were basically two-day feasts with dancing and games. In recent years, most people scale their budgeting and time, so the weddings start to resemble wedding receptions in the West with a nice dinner and a short duration. 
  That being said, weddings in the countryside are usually much bigger than weddings in the city, mainly because everyone knows each other, so most get invited to the wedding unless there is some conflict going on between the families and they’re close to home so they might as well stay and party all weekend. Thus, weddings in the country tend to be longer and more extravagant because more people attend and more guests return on the following day to celebrate, eat, drink, and dance some more. If a father can afford it, the wedding might even last 3 days. 

Tossing the Bouquet & Catching Some Clothing- 

The tossing of the bouquet at a Polish wedding was traditionally pretty seriously. In the half an hour or so before the tossing of the bouquet, there was a gradual evacuation of all unmarried females over the age of about 24. To be 25 or older and still in that circle around the bride is considered shameful and you don’t really want to be there. (This seems a lot less fun than what we do, doesn’t it?)
  Polish men also get the chance to make utter fools of themselves scrambling after discarded clothing. The groom’s tie is the sought after item in this case. By this time of the night, any male who is still able to stand, regardless of age, is considered a good catch.

Reaching the Threshold-

The happy couple is expected to be at the party until the last guest leaves, the idea being that you have the rest of your lives to be together, so tonight be a good host and stay and entertain your guests. Once the wedding is over and the couple arrives to their own house or apartment, the groom has to carry his bride over the threshold for the first time they enter the place after being married. This is to prove that he will always carry his treasured wife in his arms throughout their whole live together.
Well That Was Fun, Let’s Do It Again-
  The second day of a 2-day Polish wedding is known as poprawiny and you’re most likely to come across it at a traditional village affair. Guests go home in the morning, sleep for awhile, then get up and do it all (minus the church part) again. Ever wish you could relive your wedding day? Polish weddings make that possible. How fun!  The second night is traditionally much more relaxed than the first and may be held at one of the newlyweds’ parents’ homes. It’s a party to celebrate the fact that the previous night’s party went well, or to make up for it if it didn’t. There’s often a good amount of food and drink left from the previous night for guests to enjoy. 
Unveiling the Bride- 
  On the last night of the wedding celebration (or around midnight, in the case of a 1-day wedding), the popular oczepiny or unveiling takes place. The bride’s veil is removed and her czepek (a married woman’s cap) is placed on her head. Historically, this cap was a gift to the bride from her godmother and was reserved for her to wear only to church, folk festivals, and for burial upon her death. 
   This tradition is still prevalent for many Polish brides today, as it represents a rite of passage into marriage and wife-dom. All single ladies circle the bride as the maid or matron of honor stands behind her and removes her veil. Music is played, as a married, female guest is given the responsibility of pinning the cap on the bride as all married women circle around the her. At this moment, the bride is officially considered a married woman.

  Another variation of this tradition involves the mother removing the bride’s veil and placing it on the head of her maid or matron of honor, who then dances with the best man, before passing it to the next bridesmaid in the circle, who dances with the next groomsman in line, etc. This ritual represents the bride’s wishes for her maids to have good fortune in happiness and love themselves.  

Whether you’re planning a wedding in Poland, you’re planted somewhere else in the world with Polish roots, or you’re just learning more about Polish weddings like me, I hope that this info was interesting and helpful to you! If you’re inspired, go ahead and incorporate some of these traditions in your own wedding, and let me know how it goes 🙂 Oh, and go ahead and check out the Polish Wedding Traditions Wediquette Pinterest board for more! 

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