Wedding rites are changing

Jolanta Paškevičienė

These days, when peoples and their customs are all mixing, weddings that are celebrated in accordance with centuries-old traditions can probably only be found in some mountain village, or in an Eskimo community cut off from the world by ice, or seen in films about folk traditions.

Even Lithuanians, who are not enthusiastic about taking on new things, and who are proud of their customs that have lasted since pagan times, no longer have traditional weddings.

They often laugh that the only events they celebrate joyfully are weddings. Maybe that is why the occasion, which is celebrated with relatives and close friends, often adopts customs from other parts of the world.

Traditions Are Barely Alive

Over the last decade, not only premarital life but also marriage itself has gone through a fundamental change. Not so long ago society disapproved of unmarried couples, but now it has become much more relaxed. The Western view of building a nest, neither from scratch nor at the parents’ house, but to buy a home of one’s own has become the norm.
The government has even started promoting the idea with subsidised loans.

Population figures, which are making Lithuanians desperate and which for several years have shown that the nation is dying out, also cause concern for the Church. Every sixth child is born out of wedlock.

Changes that have occurred over the last decade reflect another tendency which does not favour the family either. Although the number of marriages has dropped by a half since 1990, the difference between the figures for marriage and those for divorce is shrinking fast.

More than half of those who marry do not wait “until death us do part,” but rather do it themselves. Last year, the ratio of marriages to divorces was 100 to 65.

Regardless of all this, Lithuanians still love their wedding traditions, even if they are slowly moving away from them. Of course, there are some who leave their work for a few hours and, without telling anyone, go to the Registry Office, and come back as if nothing at all had happened.

After the ceremony, some just sit down to dinner in a restaurant with the witnesses, without much fuss. Others make a gift of a luxurious honeymoon to themselves instead of having a wedding party.

However, the majority celebrate the wedding with true festivities, especially when it is the first time. They expect a crowd of bridesmaids and pages, a long white wedding dress, a veil or flowers for the hair, a procession of cars decked out with ribbons, and a table loaded with many-layered cakes and decorated with hearts or doves.

And there must also be a plethora of presents: at least three dinner sets, two toasters and plenty of bed linen. Relatives may simply give envelopes full of money, for the newlyweds themselves to buy what they need to start a home. Or the couple may be asked to provide a list of things they need.

Usually only elements of some custom are put into practice in weddings that are no longer a rite but more like entertainment or a game.

Parents see their children off with a blessing, and greet them with bread and salt after the ceremony. A sprig of rue, a symbol of chastity, is attached to the side of the bride’s head, with all the significance it carries in the Church, and on the second day it is solemnly burned, to the accompaniment of special songs. The fact that the couple might have lived together for a few years is irrelevant.
On the way, the couple and their entourage encounter roadblocks of garlands of flowers made by children who will demand sweets, or by young people who will let them past only after they get a piece of cake or a bottle. If a wedding takes place in the countryside, the matchmaker, or to be more exact an effigy of him, will be hanged the next day.

This tradition, which dates from the 18th century, used to have a real meaning. The matchmaker used to be a very important person, able to determine whether the marriage would be happy or whether it would be a matrimonial hell. However, matchmaking is nonexistent today. Some even joke that the function is only carried out now by the Internet, or by lonely hearts clubs.

Nevertheless, as a character in the wedding festivities, the matchmaker, along with the matron of honour, ranks second in importance after the newlyweds. They are not only witnesses to a marriage, they also direct the entire event. It is said that the atmosphere at a wedding party depends on the matchmaker’s speeches. Therefore, those who decide to throw a party have to think about who will be invited as the matchmaker.

“When our friends, whom our family had known for maybe twenty years, told us that their elder son was going to get married, I understood immediately what that could mean to me,” recalls Rimas Ramanauskas, a matchmaker.

“My suspicions proved to be correct. A few days later the couple were standing at my door with a bottle of champagne. They had come to invite me and my wife to be the matchmaker and matron of honour.

“This is a very great honour, that cannot be refused. However, it also involves some expense, which I could not afford at that time, as the matchmaker is not only responsible for everything, but also has to pay for many things, not to mention a new suit, a dress for the matron of honour, presents, and so on. All I could do was to agree, because there had to be someone to take on those duties.

“For nearly two months, my wife and I gathered all kinds of poems, and wrote a script, speeches and toasts in a thick notebook, which we didn’t put down all through the party. Even in bed we would discuss what would be interesting and appropriate for a wedding.

“When we watch the video of the wedding today, our hard work makes me happy, as no guests got bored, and the newlyweds still boast to everyone, even today, that no one else ever had such masters of ceremonies.”

God’s Blessing

When planning to get married, Lithuanians can do it either at the Registry Office or in a church. Some couples manage to do both. After the civil registration of the marriage, they hurry to exchange vows in a church.

This is not only because on such an important day even practising Catholics remember their faith.

“I’m very happy that we followed our parents’ advice and had a church wedding,” says Dalia Ostrauskienė, a 24-year-old student.

Like other couples planning to get married, she and her fiancé, Ramūnas, had to make the arrangements about the date with their parish priest three months before, and to attend a series of lectures on the Catholic concept of family life.

“At the Registry Office it felt as if we were all on some kind of conveyor belt. We were invited into the hall, and they began to play a wedding march, just as the guests who were with the couple that had got married before us were leaving through another door.

“The words that were read out to us before we signed the register were familiar to me, as the year before I had heard them word for word at my sister’s wedding, and a few months before at that of a friend of mine.

“It was only in the church that I really felt the solemnity of the occasion. It was a bit funny when we had to take off the rings we had exchanged a short while ago, only to exchange them again after taking the oath.

“But I will never forget what took place while the organ was playing. The priest’s words were meant only for us, and they were so solemn and moving that even the fear of ruining my makeup for the photography session couldn’t hold back the tears that started running down my cheek.”

Other couples have the whole ceremony only in the church, get married with the priest’s blessing, and later come to the Registry Office for the legal registration of the marriage.

A Photo Session, Champagne Alfresco or a Boat on the River

The wedding march is dying out, rings have been exchanged and fidelity has been pledged until the grave: but there are still many other things that have to be done before sitting down at the table.

First of all, the event has to be immortalised. The fact that most couples have the official and unofficial events of the day videotaped does not mean anything at all. A photo session is a sacred matter. About 99 per cent of all newlyweds are photographed in some way: either the couple alone, or endless variations with the entourage.

Some people just go straight to a photographer’s studio and leave the whole thing to the photographer there, while others book a couple of hours that day with one who specialises in wedding pictures.

Saulius Paukštys has specialised in portraiture with a difference for many years, and anyone wishing to have a sitting with him needs to make an appointment at least a month in advance.

Audronė Prins, who last year married a Dutchman, Robert, remembers the visit to Paukštys’ studio in Vilnius as one of the funniest events of her wedding.

“There were six of us at the studio: us, my children from my first marriage, and the witnesses, who were my brother and Robert’s sister,” she recalls.

“The things we found there made us laugh so much. We fooled around and joked the whole hour. When we picked up the retro-style pictures a week later, I was pleasantly surprised at how well and how stylish we all looked in them.”

Before sitting down at the table, most newlyweds and their entourage go to some beauty spot to have their pictures taken and to drink a glass of champagne, or visit a famous place, or try to cross as many bridges as possible. This non-Lithuanian tradition is said to bring good luck.

Every city and every region has its own places that attract couples. In Vilnius they are Gediminas Hill, the Hill of Three Crosses, the Pučkoriai escarpment, with its steep rock exposure reaching an impressive height, or Verkiai Palace, for those who want pictures in a more luxurious environment.

In Kaunas, after the ceremony at the Town Hall, newlyweds usually go to the Botanic Gardens or drive over 20 kilometres to the Open Air Museum in Rumšiškės, where they can have a ride in a horse-drawn coach.

Newlyweds in Klaipėda usually go to the beach. The brides paddle in the sea, or they go for a row in a boat on the River Danė. Some go to Palanga to have a picture taken in front of the 19th-century mansion.

If you ever catch a glimpse of a convoy of decked-out cars parked on a bridge, this means that one more bridegroom has succumbed to the Slavic and Asian tradition of carrying his bride in his arms across at least one bridge.

In days of old …

Our great grandmothers said that in their youth sugar was sweeter and marriages were steadier. They were not interested in the argument that many girls did not marry for love, but for the sake of the family and without knowing the groom.

Back then, young people used to meet each other in church, at the market or at a dance. If a man liked a girl, he would first get some information about her family, her home and how hard she worked, and only then would he send matchmakers.

When the time came to marry, a young man would look for a wife that would match his farm and his wealth. Everyone would search for the girl whose parents promised a larger trousseau, and whose dowry chests were fuller.

The main role was played by the matchmaker, who not only introduced young people to each other but also tried to negotiate the dowry.

After a successful viewing, an agreement would be reached on the banns, which the future couple and the matchmaker would have read out in the church. On their way back, they would always stop by the bride’s house, where the parents had already prepared a meal with drinks and had invited the neighbours. A week later, both parties would meet to discuss the procedure for the wedding and the question of the dowry.

A few days before the wedding, the bridesmaids would gather at the bride’s home, and the best man and his helpers at the home of the groom. They would begin to decorate the room for the party with garlands of oak, branches of birch and pattern cuttings. Above the seats of the newlyweds they would hang a straw mobile, and put a piece of home-made patterned cloth on the wall with a picture, flowers and a cross.

On the eve of the wedding, the bride’s girlfriends would gather at her house to make a garland of rue, all the time while singing and brushing her hair. In the morning, the groom would arrive with his escorts, and the bride’s parents would give their blessing to the couple kneeling before them and see them off to the church.

The bride would bid farewell to her family with tears, and would give towels she had made as a present to everyone.
On their return to the parents’ home after the ceremony in the church, the couple and their entourage would be greeted by the parents with bread and salt. The whole party would sit down to the wedding breakfast later.

After the second meal, arrangements would be made to leave for the husband’s home, taking along the dowry, including a horse, a cow and a sheep. A new life is to begin in an unfamiliar place, where the wife will have no one to complain to and no shoulder to cry on.

Autumn is the Season

If you ask town-dwellers when the best time is to have a wedding, you may get very different answers.
Some think that the best time is the summer, when the party can be held outdoors, where there is plenty of space, freedom and romanticism. Others find winter, with its long and cold nights and the shortage of entertainment and merrymaking, an excellent time for the ceremony.

Others see the season as irrelevant. The date depends on the waiting list at the Registry Office. Those who want it at a good time of day (between 4 and 6 p.m.) will wait several months, or even half a year.

However, a villager or a farmer would answer without hesitation. Autumn is the season for weddings. The choice is dictated by the seasonal work of the countryside. Haymaking, harvesting and potato picking are over, so it is time to celebrate.

All that remains is to make a keg of beer (a larger rural festival even today is unimaginable in most places without it), to slaughter a pig and some poultry, and to invite the guests.

Marry for Money

How much savings do you need in order to throw a wedding party? A rough estimate shows that the amount ranges from 2,000 to 15,000 litas. The cheapest option is a student wedding, where a few thousand litas will include the price of the rings, the car rental, renting the bride’s outfit from a less costly shop, and inviting a few close friends to dinner at a restaurant.

For rich parents, a wedding is an excellent opportunity to show off to their relatives and acquaintances. Lovers who say that they do not want a big wedding are silenced with arguments about the importance of the occasion, and negotiations then start on who should be invited and who ignored. A typical case is when parents want 50 to 100 guests, while the couple think 30 would be best.

Wedding planning, a service so popular elsewhere, is almost nonexistent in Lithuania. It is true that in the magazine Vestuvių Metas (Time to Get Married), already in its second year, alongside the advertisements for renting garments and banqueting halls there was an announcement shyly saying “Entrust all wedding problems to us.” Usually this heavy burden falls on the shoulders of the couple’s parents.

The Dress, the Music and All That Jazz

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue …

This tradition has not yet come to Lithuania. Sometimes a bride wears her mother’s or her grandmother’s wedding dress. It is said that it brings the couple good luck in later life. However, the only person among this author’s acquaintances who did abandoned her husband less than a year later …

It is a matter of honour for all parents to have their daughter look her best on her wedding day. Therefore, attempts are made to save on other things. Some brides order a gown from a designer; others buy the fabric themselves and go to a dressmaker, while some go to shops that hire out wedding garments.

The rental for gowns ranges from a few hundred to several thousand litas. The owners of all the shops said the same thing, as if they had all agreed on it beforehand. The more educated the bride is, the more modest the dress she chooses. However, the choices offered by shops are geared towards all tastes. Crinoline dresses embroidered with beads and spangles are still in demand.

Another headache for parents is the music. If the wedding takes place in the country, live music is simply a must.
Musicians who play at weddings (sometimes it is just one person, for whom a synthesiser replaces all the instruments) must know popular songs to everyone’s taste. Their ability to please guests will determine the amount of notes put in their hat (in addition to the price agreed on for the service).

Those wanting a more stylish party will not begrudge twice the price for an ethnographic band, which will not only play and involve the guests in the dancing and various games, but it will also entertain them with authentic wedding customs and stories of family life.

To be different at all costs

If some couples (especially their parents) want a “normal” wedding, others try to find the most unusual places for the occasion: under water, on ice, or in the sky.

A young couple, Aušra and Tauras Gaivenis, who are both in business, were the first couple in Lithuania to exchange rings under water a few years ago.

After an earthbound wedding at noon, the couple and their entourage arrived in a steamboat at the site planned for the event in the middle of Lake Galvė in Trakai. Having changed into scuba divers’ suits, they dived into the deep. Down also went the bride’s bouquet, made from real flowers and shells, the wedding rings, enclosed in a large seashell, and the witnesses.

The ceremony itself took place in a park of wooden sculptures at a depth of eight metres. Sitting on a wooden throne at the bottom of the lake, the newlyweds exchanged rings and kisses, and even opened a bottle of champagne.
“After three years of living together, for us the wedding was only a formality. Therefore, we wanted the ceremony to be as unusual as possible,” Aušra recalls.

Some good luck helped them to realise this dream. They won a competition out of 40 couples announced by the Lietus radio station. Of course, they both had to attend a two-week course in scuba diving, as none of them had ever done it before.

A young couple from Šiauliai, 20-year-old student Anastasija and 22-year-old metalworker Modestas, last autumn also had to do quite a bit of practising. Having decided to get married on ice, for three months before the wedding they learned to skate in the Akropolis ice rink, the largest shopping and entertainment centre in Vilnius.

“On the first day of the training, I put on a pair of skates for the first time in my life,” recalls Modestas.
The couple not only had to master the sport but also to learn to dance a waltz on ice, so that after they had exchanged rings they would not be embarrassed in front of the sea of spectators.

Weddings between parachute jumpers in the air do not surprise many these days. More than one couple in Lithuania have done it. However, Kristina and Saulius from Klaipėda had never seen a parachute close-up before the day they took their applications to the Registry Office.
“I never believed in lotteries or luck, but this time luck was on our side,” Kristina recalls the day when casting lots made them winners of the annual “Wedding at the Seaside” event arranged by a local radio station.

After the church wedding, the car carrying the young couple headed for the airstrip, and the entourage went to the beach to wait for them. Dressed in white pilot suits and briefed on the basics of parachuting, the newlyweds jumped (“Thank God, and the instructor,” says Kristina) from an altitude of 2.5 kilometres.

“It was fantastic,” Kristina says. “First there were forty seconds of free fall, and then we simply soared for seven minutes.”

A crowd of onlookers, including well-wishers and even just holidaymakers, was waiting on the beach. The crowd scattered rose petals and rice on their heads (a very un-Lithuanian tradition) and released white doves into the sky (as is done in Italy). The sponsors of the event showered the young couple with presents, such as a television set, a fridge, a washing machine and a trip to Sweden.

To Avoid Rain

It is no good if the newlyweds lack a sense of humour or if there is a tear in the bride’s dress. The bridegroom tripping on the stairs or a candle going out in the church will ruin the mood of the wedding. Most brides try to prevent their fiancés from seeing them dressed up in their wedding dresses beforehand, which would be a bad omen.

In church the bride tries to kneel on the groom’s coat, and if she succeeds she will have the upper hand in the family. And never shake the young couple’s hands with your bare hand, do it through some cloth. Otherwise money will just flow through their fingers.

If it rains on your wedding day, you will cry your whole life. The girl who catches the bride’s bouquet when it is thrown over her head will be the next to marry. All this is well known, but people create new superstitions. The owner of a shop renting out wedding dresses says that if a bride is wearing a pantyhose on her wedding day, she will have a long marriage; but if she puts on knee-high socks it will be much shorter.