Last September, en route from Australia to Costa Rica, we made a much-anticipated stop in Ukraine to finally introduce Max to my extended family and to attend my cousin’s wedding. Despite the fact that I grew up in Ukraine (my family moved to Canada when I was 15 years old), I had never attended a traditional Ukrainian wedding before and had no idea what to expect. I guessed that there would be an intimate church ceremony followed by a backyard reception in the bride’s village.
To our big surprise, the wedding was far different from that. There was a civil wedding ceremony, a white Ukrainian wedding dress and a suit, a banquet hall, chandeliers, overflowing amounts of food, and some dancing.
From the outside, the wedding looked similar to what you would typically expect to see in North America. But weaved through the traditional Ukrainian wedding were a ton of quirky details, Ukrainian wedding traditions, games, and surprises that made it one of the most unique and memorable weddings we’ve ever attended.
1. Paying the Ransom
The morning of the wedding, we got our first taste of Ukrainian wedding customs. The groom (my cousin) had to go to the bride’s parent’s house to pay the ransom to get his bride. His best man, along with his immediate family (which also included my family, Max and I) were allowed to come along for moral support.
He arrived at the house with two loaves of bread to gift to the bride’s family. But instead of being taken inside right away, he was greeted by the bridesmaids whose responsibility was to protect the bride from getting “stolen” without the adequate ransom.
The girls worked hard to up the price of the ransom by stumping my cousins on questions about his bride (every wrong answer required him to pay more), forcing him to shower her with compliments and do whatever else was necessary to get him to drop more cash. After about 15 minutes of laughter and solid entertainment for all, my cousin was allowed inside to get his girl.
In some iterations of this Ukrainian wedding tradition, the parents of the bride actually bring out another woman or man dressed as the bride and covered with a veil, so the groom can’t see her face to trick the groom. It is said that once the groom realizes that it is not his bride, he is asked to pay for the bride who is much more valuable.
It is also said that if the bride’s parents meet the groom at the door with a pumpkin, it means that his offer of marriage was not accepted by either the bride or by her family. The pumpkin is something for him to carry, so that he doesn’t leave empty-handed.
Luckily for us, no pumpkins were exchanged during my cousin’s wedding.
2. Blahoslovenja (Blessings)
Blahoslovenja is a ritual that typically takes place shortly before the ceremony and involves the parents and grandparents giving their blessings to the couple. In my cousin’s case, the ritual took place right after the ransom was settled inside the bride’s parents house. The couple and both sets of parents exchanged bows, and the parents gave the bride and groom their best Ukrainian wedding wishes and blessings for a happy and prosperous marriage.
3. Stepping on the Rushnyk ( embroidered cloth)
Almost every Ukrainian wedding ceremony will see the couple step on a traditional embroidered cloth (referred to as rushnyk) before they take their vows. Traditionally, the person that steps on the Ukrainian wedding rushnyk first, will wear the pants in the family, so to say, and have the final say throughout the marriage. It seems that the groom almost always lets the bride step on the Ukrainian wedding rushnyk first, a gesture that is both respectful and endearing during the marriage ceremony.
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4. The Ukrainian Wedding Ring Finger
During the marriage ceremony Max was surprised to see my cousin slipping the wedding ring onto the right hand of this bride. That’s because unlike in North America where wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left ring finger, a Ukrainian wedding ring finger is on the right hand.
The bride will wear her ring on the same finger throughout her life unless her husband dies before her. In that case, she will switch hands demonstrating that she is a widow.
5. Korovai Ukranian Wedding Bread
Korovai is known as an Ukrainian wedding cake. It’s a large round braided bread baked from wheat flour often decorated with various symbols and figurines that’s given to the bride and groom as a marriage blessing. It’s a delicious, slightly sweet substitute for bread.
While the couple may try pieces of it during the wedding, it is much more likely for the Ukrainian wedding cake to be consumed in week(s) after the wedding. My cousin and his wife received at least 3-4 Korovai Ukrainian wedding bread on their big day. Too many to consume on their own. So luckily, Max, myself, and the rest of our family were there to give them a hand.
A typical Ukrainian wedding bread recipe includes evaporated milk, sugar, wheat flour, butter, eggs, and vanilla. However, some have rum extract, zest of lemon and other ingredients which are often passed through the generations by way of a family Ukrainian wedding bread recipe.
Bread has a lot of symbolism in Urkrianian weddings. Traditionally, a bride would move into the groom’s house immediately after the wedding ceremony, without a reception like my cousin had, and so they were greeted there with bread and salt.
Of the Ukrainian wedding traditions, bread & salt carry the most meaning. Bread is symbolic of a Ukrainian wedding blessing for wealth and good luck. While, salt was considered a protector of evil spirits. They were meant to be eaten together.
Sometimes at modern day traditional Ukrainain weddings the couple will still eat the Korovai with salt. However, my cousin and his bride forwent this unpleasant tasting wedding tradition.
6. Kidnapping the Bride
One of the Ukrainian wedding reception traditions is the “kidnapping of the bride”. Numerous times throughout the night, the bride would disappear from the banquet hall and be held captive by her bridesmaids until the groom carried out some dares. I think the idea behind the kidnapping was to make the groom do something he isn’t fond of, but in the case of my cousin’s wedding all the dares involved vodka.
The first time the bride went missing. He had to drink a shot of vodka from her shoe (Cinderella style). But, as the night progressed the symbolism gave way to practicality. The bride would run off with the girls, leaving my cousin and his friends to tend to vodka. Of course Max joined in.
7. Hirko! Ukrainian Wedding Toast
Ukrainian weddings are renowned for toasts. At times it felt like someone was saying a toast every time we reached over for another sip. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, second cousins twice removed, it felt like everyone had something to say. And every toast ended in a famous Ukrainian phrase “Hirko!”, meaning “bitter”, which indicated that the bride and groom had to kiss.
As the Ukrainian wedding toast tradition goes, if something is “bitter,” kissing will sweeten it. The guests loved yelling out “hirko!” whenever they could and the couple looked so tired of kissing we almost felt sorry for them.
8. Wedding Games & Activities
There were a ton of games and activities going on throughout the night. It felt a bit too much for us (where was all the dancing?), but it made sense when we later learned that Ukrainian weddings are all about entertainment.
Guests expect to be entertained throughout the night and it’s up to the bride and groom along with their MC (which they call “tomoda” in Ukraine) to keep the spirits high throughout the night.
The Guessing Baby Gender Game was one of the easier games to understand. The best man and maid of honour each walked around the room asking for the crowd to vote on the gender of the couple’s first baby. Those voting for a girl had to drop money into the best man’s bucket, and those hoping for a boy, would put money into the maid of honours bucket. The votes were in and according to the friends and family’s opinions, they will be having a boy!
9. Single Ladies Dance
During the festivities, all the single ladies (unmarried, which included me at the time), were invited to the floor for a Ukrainian wedding dance. We lined up for our turn to dance with the bride and after an awkward 15 second dance, the bride would spin each one of us and sit us down on a chair.
The premise was to jump up from the chair as quickly as possible (the longer you sit, the more likely you are to end up sitting alone for the rest of your life) and grab a piece of paper out of a hat. The paper would give you your love life prophecy. Mine said that I was going to marry a Hollywood actor. Instead I married a traveler.
10. Favourite Part of the Body Dance Off
This Ukrainian wedding dance was by far the most embarrassing activity I took part in throughout the entire evening! A few of the girls were hand selected by the bride (“You have to play this one”, my cousin’s wife said as she pulled me towards the dance floor, “it’s such a fun one”), to form a line in front of the best man.
One by one we had to do a little catwalk dance for the best man. This is to help him identify each girl’s most attractive part of the body. Luckily the best man knew there was a catch to his selection. He picked the most obscure parts, like elbow, knee, and toe. When the catwalk dances were over he was instructed to kiss his favourite part of each girl’s body. I got a kiss on the eyebrow and shuffled back to my seat mortified. Never again!
The games continued on all night and Max got a chance to participate in some as well. With my brother by his side as his official translator, he bonded with the rest of the guys at the wedding over vodka, ridiculous dances, Ukrainian wedding songs, horrible singing and wedding traditions.
Do Ukriainans have an arranged marriage?
Nope, Ukrainian dating looks pretty similar to dating in North America. However, gender roles are somewhat more defined.
When it comes to who will pay for the wedding ceremony it is written in any marriage traditions that either party will pay for the ceremony. Sometimes it’s the couple themselves and sometimes they get help from their families.
What is traditional Ukrianian wedding dress like?
Before Soviet rule, the traditions were that brides would wear embroidered dresses and Ukrainian wedding crowns to their marriage ceremonies. The traditional Ukrainian wedding dress would be colorful, vibrant with lots of patterns, embroidery, and ornaments. It would be complimented by a Ukrainian wedding crown which would be hand woven, like a wreath. Whereas, the men would wear similarly embroidered shirts with plain trousers to be married.
Today, wedding dress traditions are similar to that of North America. Like my cousin and his bride, most couples wear the standard white wedding gown and black suit to be married. However, there will sometimes be touches of embroidery on the dress or veil. Some brides will wear a Ukrainian wedding crown made of flowers.
What are traditional Ukrainian wedding gifts?
The most popular Ukrainian wedding gifts are sealed envelopes with money. At most Ukrainian weddings the bride and groom will line up and guests will greet the happily married couple one-by-one with a sealed envelope as their gift.
What is Ukrainian wedding music like?
It is a mix of traditional folk and Ukrainian wedding songs, with modern day tunes. However, at some point you will definitely hear the Ukrainian wedding march at the reception which embodies the liviness of the celebration.
It was a night to remember! We were grateful for the opportunity to witness such an amazing celebration! This has been the most memorable and unique wedding we’ve ever attended.
21 thoughts on “10 Surprising Ukrainian Wedding Traditions”
Not a unique wedding tradition, but when I was living with a host family in Costa Rica, I went to church one evening with them. I was raised going to a Catholic Church and while this church was Catholic, it was very different from the rituals we partake in at the church in my hometown! One thing in particular that stood out was when everyone in the congregation stood up and surrounded the offering table. We all held hands and then stepped forward and backward while moving and singing around the table in a circle. It was very interesting!
Sounds interesting for sure! We are based in Costa Rica right now and since we are not religious, we don’t normally visit church services during our travels, so thanks for sharing this tradition. We probably would’ve never discovered it on our own.
Hello Oksana! You shared amazing wedding information of Ukraine. I like all the traditions but the tradition of kidnapping a bride is mind blowing and the Korovai cake looks too delicious. Thank you for making us aware of Ukraine.
Great read! These are very interesting, some of them looks fun to do in a wedding. Forwarding this to my future sister-in-law.
Great traditions for sure, they definitely made my cousins wedding very unique!
Interesting article indeed. Glad to know the real and interesting traditions of Ukrainian wedding. I was unknown before but reading this post, helped me to enhance my knowledge on various traditions of different country.
I just can’t hold myself to get amazed reading ” kidnapping the bride tradition”, it’s really so funny and awesome for entertainment. I think single ladies dance moment is fantastic moment for everyone. Nice pics shared by you. Seems like you are happy to follow such interesting wedding tradition.
Thanks for sharing such wonderful post with us. Pleasure to read this post.
Hello Oksana: Thank you for the all the wonderful information about Ukrainian weddings. I got engaged to a beautiful angel from Odessa and our wedding will be in July in Ukraine. This evening she gave me an exact date-July 25. This date is very significant to her for a personal reason, but it falls on a Wednesday-the middle of the week. Is this not unusual to have a wedding in the middle of a work week? It will be the height of summer but I am assuming Ukrainians , like all peoples, still work in July. Thank you in advance for any information you can give me about this. Joe
Yes, a mid-week wedding is a bit unusual. The wedding we attended was on the weekend. But we suggest that you consult with your fiancee as she would know for a fact which dates are feasible for her, her family, and friends and which ones aren’t. All the best!
Really enjoyed your post and we will be attending a wedding in Zbaraje ( near Ternopil) in May.
Where In Ukraine was the wedding you attended?
I would really like to know the tradition of giving a wedding gift.
Is it usually money or something else ?
Thanks so much.
Second trip to Ukraine and so looking forward to it.!!!
The wedding we attended was near Ternopil, but the couple lived in Kiev at the time. We gifted money as that seemed to be the preference. Best to double check with the bride and groom to make sure they don’t have a wedding registry set up. Enjoy the festivities!
Hello Oksana! I came across your blog while searching “traditional Ukrainian wedding gifts” and was pleasantly surprised by your beautiful and funny description of Ukrainian weddings! I’ve lived here for 23 years (I’m an American) and you hit everything spot on and with such fun positivity! Your first picture of the table full of food would look like the buffet table to most Americans, but later in the blog we all see it is just the food for one table and that every table is that packed with food! That is SO UKRAINE! <3
Glad to hear you found the post relatable!
I enjoyed reading your blog. I am supposed to be finding music for my wedding to My Oksana here in Kyiv this June. We have almost everything ready including the entertainment and are just about ready for the special day. My family will be coming over from Canada to take part and I hope that they enjoy their first Ukrainian wedding as much as you did.
I lived in China and went to a wedding there, moved to Albania and was a guest at a wedding there as well. If you want to have a good time then try to get to an Albanian wedding. They usually last about three days!
I love the lifestyle you and Max live and would love to do something similar. I have visited over 50 countries and always try to get as much of the local culture as possible. I look forward to reading more of your posts.
Lovely to hear from another world traveler! Best wishes on your wedding day and happy travels in the future!
Thank you for this valuable information. I am writing a book about my great grandfather’s life. He married in Odessa in 1885 and I’m having to use my imagination in recreating it. This has helped! Many blessings on you! Joe.
Hello Oksana, I want to learn more about Ukraine traditions in the wedding. My fiance wants to come to America to marry me. I would love to be able to put some of her traditions in the wedding. Can you help me?
Hi Del, this article is a great start. You can dive deeper into each tradition by researching more about it. Unfortunately, we do not have additional resources to offer at this time.
I am moving to Kyiv this summer and going to propose to my Ukrainian girlfriend of 4 years. We were kinda planning a big wedding in Ukraine with all of her family and friends since most of my family have passed away.
Thanks for sharing your experiences.
The Las Vegas quickie marriage sounding better but damn I bet that wedding was fun!
Thanks for sharing. Glad I found your blog.
Be safe, see you on the road someday.
Congratulations on the upcoming move and all the best to you and your future wife! We hope you will enjoy living in Kyiv. the city has seen a lot of development over the last decade and has really transformed into a bustling European capital.
I am getting married to a Ukrainian hopefully this September, (if things work out right with the world ie: Russia flexing their muscle. We agreed to have the wedding in Ukraine out of respect of her family and her being the youngest and only daughter. we have been dating for 2 years because of COVID we had to put everything off for a year. We have been planning our wedding for the last year. is there any recommendations or anything I need to know on planning this wedding? Oh, because of this COVID, i still have to meet the parents and gets dads blessing. So as of right now they don’t know we are getting married, but I have a feeling we want to.
First step would be to discuss your plans with your future wife. She will likely have lots of ideas and plans!