Russian Wedding Customs

With the number of international romances these days, perhaps it is high time that we helped take some of the mystery out of Russian weddings.

A Russian or Ukrainian wedding has some key differences from the West. Two kinds of wedding happen in the Eastern world, a civil ceremony which makes the marriage legal and usually later a religious ceremony done for reasons of faith.  A religious wedding has no legal standing in this part of the world and therefore every married couple begins their married life in a civil ceremony at a local registry office. In Russia these are called ZAGS and in Ukraine the term is RAGS.

There are no bridesmaids or best men typically. Some may have them, but it isn’t a set tradition. Most often you have “witnesses.” They are called Свидетели на свадьбе, meaning witnesses of the wedding.

There is usually one female witness, свадьба свидетела, or more commonly the Свидетельница (female witness). Her job in the ZAGS/RAGS legal ceremony is to assist the bride and usually she is a close friend or relative, most often similar in age. The female witness or sponsor in church/religious ceremony may be the same but is often someone different.

The female witness, the Свидетельница, often wears a sash to set her apart from the other girls, if she wears one at all and often they don’t. Sometimes she and the bride will wear colours not worn by the other girls, but these days that is not a hard and fast rule. She helps the bride with the planning and details of the wedding, and usually they are close friends. A typical family in the FSU does not hire a wedding planner so the bride, her witness, and the bride’s Mum usually handle the wedding planning.

At the ceremony the bride and groom will receive many of floral arrangements, the most common wedding gift given at the ceremony. Those are traditionally presented quickly in the receiving line immediately after the ZAGS/RAGS ceremony. The Свидетельница, with the help of the свидетель, is responsible to keep tabs on those flowers and see that they go along for the traditional stops for photos and toasts. Some of these flowers will be placed at war memorial monuments and or other important places visited but some will be kept for decoration at the wedding party.

While the guys are responsible for arranging transportation for everyone, the ladies most often handle the decorations of the car. The car decorations usually are detailed around the hood, top, front grille, and the door handles. There is no tradition of tricking the bride and groom with tin cans filled with rocks and shaving cream plastered over the windshield. Most RW brides would be offended at such treatment just as many are offended with the American (rude) tradition of shoving her face full of cake icing. Often a guy finds that his lady views this ceremony differently and more seriously in many instances than the usual jovial wedding pranks in the West.

There is a legal aspect of the wedding witness too in a ZAGS (Russia) or RAGS (Ukraine) ceremony. They’re actually the legal witnesses of the ceremony.

The guy witness is the свадьба свидетель, which is the term for a male wedding witness. If the bride so chooses to have her witnesses wear sashes, then he will wear a sash that typically reads свидетель (witness). His responsibilities are to the groom in planning for transportation, making certain that the buses or vans or limos are arranged, to help the groom make sure the restaurant is paid in a timely manner for the wedding party, to obtain flowers for the bride on the wedding day, help the groom secure gifts if there is to be a “ransom” of the bride on the wedding day, make sure the groom takes the rings to the ZAGS ceremony, etc.

Another often important difference from West to East is that the man goes to the home of the bride to collect her and her family on the day of the wedding. It is not uncommon for him to be responsible for the transportation and arrange it for everyone. The bride is usually being attended by the female witness and her Mum up until the time some game is played, ransom of the bride is one popular option but not the only one, that couples use to present the bride to the groom so they can ride to ZAGS/RAGS together.

He also is a legal witness at the ZAGS or RAGS ceremony. If he wears a sash, it is to set him apart also.

During the legal ceremony the two witnesses will stand either behind or beside the bride and groom, the Свидетельница by the bride and the свидетель by the groom.

During the wedding party, the two witnesses usually sit next to the bride and groom. They are usually on call to assist until the last guest has gone home. A Russian/Ukrainian party is typically different from the West. In addition to the normal fun of making toasts, dancing, etc, it is not out of the ordinary for guests sing songs, recite poetry, and play group games as well. The witnesses are often responsible to lead these various activities.

In some traditions the male witness is responsible for making sure that the groom has arranged for enough wine and champagne not only for the party, but for the stops the couple will make for toasts and photographs after leaving ZAGS and on the way to the party.

Most importantly, as the male witness is responsible for toasts and speeches during the party, part of his job is to make sure that he and the groom remain at least somewhat sober for the entire event. Some do a better job of this than others.

Wedding towels:

The wedding towels are usually different but can be the same as the sashes. The towels, usually there are three, are in some cases more common that the sashes. Often the bride and her mother or a grandmother have been making the towels before the proposal in anticipation of the proposal meeting.

Not all couples observe this tradition, but if they do, when the young man and his elder representative (father, brother, uncle, older friend, etc) call on her father (or family representative) to ask permission to marry, the prospective bride of course knows the purpose of the meeting and it is common to have the towels ready then. The towels, depending on the family, can have meanings such as these:
– 3 towels to some families represent the sign of the Trinity. When the couple have children the baby will be baptized and covered with this towel.- 1 towel will bind the couple’s hands together during the church ceremony. It is the last part of the betrothal service. Remember that the couple are first “engaged” upon entering the church for the wedding ceremony. That is why no engagement ring is necessary.

–  1 towel is sometimes used as what we would term a rug. In an Orthodox wedding ceremony you will see the priest lead the couple from the church entry where they were just betrothed (engaged) just moments before up towards the iconostasis area to where the third towel or a small embroidered rug. They stand on that for the remainder of the church service up until the moment when the priest leads them around an altar table three times.

Sometimes the towels represent an additional “trinity” of two families coming together to form one additional (the third) new family unit.

There are lots of other unique things about an FSU wedding from the ornate wedding crowns held over their heads by sponsors to the special white candles held during the Orthodox ceremony to “wedding icons” and padlocks that makes these celebrations really special.Seldom does a couple incorporate all the available traditions and more likely the bride will choose those that are most meaningful to her/them.

One things is for certain, the ZAGS/RAGS ceremony may be “civil” in nature, but unlike most civil weddings in the West these events are filled with pomp and circumstance and special traditions even for the brief 20 some minutes of a ZAGS wedding factory where a hundred couples are all scheduled to one by one be married on a given day.

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