In earlier times, long and elaborate wedding celebration took place in the villages of Lithuania. A wedding was a big event in rural life, and young and old participated in it actively. Festivities usually lasted a full week, with each day comprising several acts of a continually unfolding drama. There was much eating, drinking and other celebrating throughout.
Two basic ideas were stressed throughout the complex ceremony: the separation of the bride from her familiar life at the home of her parents to begin a new life with her husband, and the transition from celibacy to wedded life. Also various rituals were performed to guarantee the success of the match, to bring children, love, happiness and prosperity and to protect the bride from the evil eye of various witches which were understood to linger about waiting to cast an evil spell on her.
The most important roles in the wedding drama did not belong to the bride and groom, however. They were played by the best man, the matron of honor, master of ceremonies and — most important of all — the matchmaker.
The drama opened with the bride’s lamentations on the evening before the wedding. She would invite her friends and neighbors to the plaiting (also called “girls’ evening” and “evening feast”) where she would bid farewell to her flower garden, her carefree youthful days and her young maiden friends.
The guests would plait a wreath of rue, a symbol of chastity, and adorn the bride’s head, with it. The bride would sit on an overturned wooden tub used for kneading bread, which meant she was on the threshold of domestic life. Her friends would assemble about her.
The groom, meanwhile, would be visited by his friends too, and later come with them to his bride’s house to sing to her. Many of these were meant to produce tears. “Last Evening With My Mother,” “Plait My Hair, Sisters,” “Put the Wreath of Rue Upon My Head,” the young men sang. The bridesmaids thought that their friend would be leaving, perhaps going to a distant village to live with an ill-tempered mother-in-law (Anyta) and would also burst into tearful songs.
During this evening the mother entrusted the bride to the groom’s care and a wedding contract was signed. However, the blessing of the Church still awaited.
THE BRIDE AND GROOM LEAVE FOR CHURCH
On the morning of the wedding the groom and his group would present themselves again at the bride’s home but would now be greeted in a hostile manner. He also was expected to offer gifts, usualy of drink.
Early folklorists interpreted this custom as an indication that in ancient times brides were taken from their homes by force, but it is now interpreted as a symbol of acceptance of a stranger into a family. The stern interrogation always ended with an announcement that the groom was one of the family.
He would then present a garland to the bride and exchange gifts with her. Usually the young man gave a pair of shoes and the girl a shirt of her own making, a waist-band or gloves, The bride would then bid farewell to her family, ask for their blessing, and leave for the church ceremony.
Before leaving their respective homes, bride and groom had performed another rite. They were led around the hearth in the middle of the room, and when later the heart was replaced by a modern stove in the corner of the house, around the table. Ancient Prussians are understood to have had the same custom. It symbolized farewell.
RECEPTION ON RETURNING FROM CHURCH
On its way home from church, the wedding party would find burning straw in the middle of the road to protect the newlyweds from evil. Although the horses shied and reared, they had to pass through this “witch-burning,” as it was called. There were also other barriers, which the guests were allowed to pass if they gave money, food or drink to those who had set them up.
When the couple reached the bride’s house, it was met by her parents who offered black bread, salt and a drink. This is a solemn reception given to esteemed guests. The youth would accept it and sing: “Give bread and salt, let her be a good housewife.”
In early days, the couple would then circle the house to close the magic circle. Then they would enter the house and be covered with furs turned inside out to insure a rich life. Sometimes furs were also laid on the floor, for good measure. After that, bride and groom were sprinkled with grain so that the harvest might bring a good crop, and sometimes their lips would be anointed with honey by their parents so that their future might be sweet. They were seated on pillows, a place of honor.
DINNER GIVEN BY THE MATRON OF HONOR
The next act in the wedding drama was a dinner given by the matron of honor (svočia). On the table laden with fried rooster and delicacies of all kinds the most important item was a huge cake called “Karvojus,” or ‘Prindelis” or “Praplotis.” It was thin but large, often oval in form, and sometimes took fifty pounds of flour to make. On the outside it was decorated with figures of all kinds, birds, crossed hands, and other appropriate symbols.
Sometimes the newlyweds would eat and drink from the same bowl. In ancient times this was the most important rite of the wedding.
THE BRIDE COVERS HER HEAD
Unmarried girls in Lithuania never covered their heads. They wore a narrow head-piece or tied their braids with a ribbon. But married women covered their heads with a large piece of linen called “nuometas.”
During the wedding therefore, the matchmaker or matron of honor removed the wreath of rue and placed the “nuometas” on the bride’s head.
The bride and her attendants defended the wreath and threw the offered headpiece on the floor three times, to show that the girl’s life in her parents home had been beautiful before accepting it. Then the entire wedding party sang: “Take off the wreath, light as a blossom, don the ‘nuometas’, heavy as wood.”
After this ceremony the bride was a daughter-in-law fully accepted in the society of wedded women. In olden times, 17th century authors tell us, women would not take on the “nuometas” until the birth of their first child.
HANGING THE MATCHMAKER
The matchmaker provided a comic element throughout the festivities. He played all sorts of pranks and praised the groom’s virtues, his great wealth and achievements and also mocked him, his way of life and his farm. This was done in spontaneous song and verse.
Toward the end of the festivities, he was accused of telling lies and enticing the bride away. A decree was written in the style of legal proclamations and he was sentenced to a hanging in efigy. He would then climb up on the roof and parade back and forth, impersonating his own ghost. Sometimes the bride would announce her forgiveness, however, and tie an embroidered towel around his waist.
Wedding customs differed in different parts of Lithuania and changed with time. It is difficult to describe them in full or to know now their full and ancient meaning. Only by tracing them historically and comparing them to customs of other lands do we understand all their implications and symbolism.
From LlTUANUS No. 1, 1960.
A few highlights of rural wedding festivities, some of which still exist today. The author, a prominent folklorist, has published several volumes of Lithuanian folk-songs and legends.