Bulgarian wedding traditions and rituals are remarkable for their festive spirit and their detail and variety, compared to all other family traditions. The purpose of family traditions and rituals is above all to set a legal framework for marriage as a social institution and to provide social recognition for it, with all ensuing consequences. Invariably, certain rituals bear agrarian elements, and they also present a healthful aspect providing fertility, health, and wellbeing.
Marriages were normally concluded based on both the agrarian and the Orthodox calendars.
The prenuptial cycle includes a number of traditions and several rituals aiming at the choice of an appropriate bride and making preparations for the wedding.
The so called sgleda, or the visit to the home of a prospective bride, is the first step toward confirming the choice of a wife. This is a sort of preliminary inspection, with or without establishing contact between the two families. The ritual participants, or the members of the engagement party (aka oglednitsi, odumnitsi, godezhari, sgodichari) are related of the groom’s family.
One of the engagement party members should always be a wealthy and authoritative man, worthy of the respect of the community. If the hosts decide to accept the engagement, they inform the engagement party they need time to “consider the proposal”; tradition has it that the answer to the proposal shall be postponed at least once. If the hosts decide to decline, they tell that the girl is too young for marriage.
If the engagement visit is successful, an engagement follows, also known in the different regions of the country as betrothal, giving pledge glavezh, zapiv, uglava, etc.
The marriage ceremony is always performed of holidays, mostly on Sundays. Both families prepare for the ceremony together and separately, and have invited guests. Each stage of the wedding ceremony has its own significance and is performed by a particular person. The participants in the wedding ceremony vary depending on the region of the country. The other important parts in the wedding ceremony along with the part of the groom and bride (also known as wife, champion, son of law) are the parts of the groom’s brother (or brothers) in law, the sworn brother, the wagoner, the old kinsman and the old kinswoman by marriage; the old kinswoman should accompany the bride all through the wedding day, taking care in case the bride feels unwell; the mother of the groom, the best man and the sponsor at the wedding, also known as kaltatya and kalimana; sisters in law (aunts).
The wedding ceremony starts by the so called ritual zasevki, also know as zameski, yeast kneading , bread kneading, honey bread kneading, etc.
The next stage of the wedding is the preparation of a wedding banner styag, pryaporetz, feruglitza. The banner is made by girls who attach a white or red piece of cloth (or white and red together) to a simple rod stuck with a flower, an apple, or common onion.
In the regions of the Rhodope mountains and Western Bulgaria people would prepare a wedding tree, also called sponsor’s tree, fir tree rachenik, kanska, kouzhel, yabolshnitsa.
The wedding preparation also includes the combing and plaiting of the bride’s hair. It is only performed by girls. The combing and plaiting rite is accompanied by singing specially dedicated songs.
Its corresponding ritual is the shaving of the groom. The shaving ritual is very popular in the whole country. Even if the groom is a young boy and has no need for shaving, he is still shaved. The ritual is performed by a boy or by the groom’s brother.
The dressing up and veiling of the bride are performed before leading her away from her father’s home. The bride should be dressed up in all her finery and should wear in her newest clothes.
The wedding guests usually find the gates closed when they come to take the bride from her home .
To be admitted to the bride’s rooms, the groom and the groom’s brother are required to pay a “ransom”. The bride’s girlfriends would not let them in until they make a good enough offer for the bride’s ‘ransom. As a part of the celebration, the groom would present the bride with shoes she would then wear at the wedding ceremony. By tradition, the bride’s mother, the sponsor at the wedding, and other close relatives to throw millet, wheat, walnuts, and coins at the newlyweds, thus symbolically wishing them “fertility and wellbeing”.
The wedding ceremony was obligatorily performed in church, and in villages where there was no church – at the groom’s house.
The introduction of the bride into her new home is an important stage of the wedding ceremony. Once the wedding guests reach the groom’s house, they stop the procession. Then they start singing festive songs inviting the mother in law to welcome the bride who will be her helper in the household.
From this point onward, the wedding table becomes the center of the celebration. The festive spirit of the celebration was enhanced by the rich singing repertoire
The ritual of separation of the newlyweds in a specially prepared room, or the so called svozhdane, is performed during the night following the marriage ceremony. In certain regions, the nuptial bed is prepared in the fold, in the barn , or in another agricultural building. In certain regions of the country, in celebration of the successful ritual of separation of the newlyweds svozhdane, the wedding guests break a roof-tile or a piece of crockery as a celebration and bring to the bride’s parents a gift of a living billy-goat or ram.
If the bride is found not to be “honest” (or a virgin), the wedding guests leave the house. The bagpiper climbs up the roof to announce to the village that great misfortune has fallen upon this home.
The rite of unveiling the bride and removing her bridal crown of flowers is usually performed on the Monday following the wedding ceremony. It is usually done by the sponsor at the wedding or by the brother in law.
The end of the wedding ceremony is celebrated nation-wide by the ritual of leading the bride to the fountain or to the spring for water; this ritual is performed on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, following the svozhdane. The ritual in traditional view symbolizes the introduction of the bride to her new household by involving her in the housework routine. In many cases the bride had to do the laundry with a washing beetle, spin wool, etc. from her very first day at the new home.