Eastern European Prewedding Rituals
There's a lot more to pre-wedding rituals in Eastern Europe than just bachelor parties and bridal showers. Their colorful traditions include symbolic gift giving, crying, singing, and lots of drinking.
Betrothal rites are the customs a man and a woman follow to let the rest of the world know they plan to be married. Today, a man might present his intended with a diamond ring. In medieval Armenia, a man would send his chosen bride some new clothes; she would in turn send him food, such as sugar, butter, and milk. The rituals are different, but the meaning is the same.
Pre-Revolution Russian peasants hosted a formal betrothal party during which the groom would burn his fiancee's flax spindle in order to signify that she would no longer be a spinster. An 18th-century Polish bride would be presented with a skein of tangled silk yarn to unravel to connote the untying of her bonds to her family and maidenhood. Hungarian grooms of the Matyo people are presented by their future wives with a special black apron and embroidered shirt to signify betrothal. On a prearranged night, the groom would surreptitiously wear these garments on a walk, during which he must not be seen by anyone.
The bride and groom are not the only ones to get in on the act. A few days before a Serbian wedding, the groom's father fills a flask with his best brandy, decorates it with flowers, slings a sack over his shoulder, and sets out to personally invite all the wedding guests. He offers each guest a drink of brandy and together they toast the couple. Then the guest tops off the flask with his own brandy and pins a token, such as a handkerchief or a pair of socks, to the father's sack before sending him on to invite the next guest.
Though today our pre-wedding customs, such as the bridal shower and bachelor[ette] party, are generally festive occasions, this was not always the case. In many Eastern European cultures, pre-wedding customs are more serious, seen as a time for the bride and groom to participate in reverent acts of purification -- or even as an occasion to mourn the passing of their childhood.
Russian women, upon engagement, are excused from most of their chores and don special clothing to signify mourning. Friends hold what amount to good-bye parties, and sing songs of lament at the passing of the bride's innocence. Keep in mind the bride may have been facing her impending departure from not only her family, but from the village of her birth. Her friends sang about the ill treatment and misfortune she would most likely face once she became part of her husband's family -- giving her plenty to look forward too. They would advise her to express her grief now, before the wedding day. In many cases, this sadness was merely ceremonial; as an old Russian proverb says: "Weeping bride, laughing wife; laughing bride, weeping wife."
Grooms were not immune to this wedding melancholia either. Transylvanians approached marriage as a form of metaphorical death, even playing funeral dirges during the processional. The groom's friends sang not-so-cheerful songs about the dead departing this world. The idea was to purge the groom of his grief for the loss of his bachelorhood, family, and youth before celebrating his wedding day.