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 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 ceremony, a white dress and a suite, a banquet hall, chandeliers, overflowing amount 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 it were a ton of quirky details, 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, 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 loafs 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 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, and 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 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 cloth 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 cloth first, a gesture that is both respectful and endearing.
4. Korovai Wedding Cake
Korovai is the Ukrainian alternative to 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 blessing. While the couple may try pieces of it during the wedding, it is much more likely for it to be consumed in week(s) after the wedding. My cousin and his wife received at least 3-4 korovai’s on their wedding day, too many to consume on our their own. Luckily, Max, myself, and the rest of our family were there to give them a hand. Korovais’ make a delicious slightly sweet substitute for bread.
5. Kidnapping 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 off, 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.
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 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.
7. Wedding Games & Activities
There were a ton of games and activities going on throughout the night. It felt like a bit too much for us (where was all the dancing?), but made sense when we later learned that in Ukrainian weddings are all about the 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.
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!
8. Single Ladies Dance
All the single ladies (unmarried, which included me at the time), were invited to the dance floor and lined up for their turn to dance with the bride. 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.
9. Favourite Part of the Body Dance Off
This 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, to help him identify each girls most attractive part of the body. Luckily the best man knew there was a catch to his selection and picked the most obscure parts, like elbow, knee, and toe. When the cat walk 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, and horrible singing.
It was a night to remember! We were grateful for the opportunity to witness such an amazing celebration and take part in what has been the most memorable and unique wedding we’ve ever attended.
BEFORE YOU GO: DON’T FORGET TRAVEL INSURANCE
We can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance, especially in a country like Ukraine. Whether you just plan to explore the cities, do a little bit of hiking, or something more extreme, being protected on your travels is an irreplaceable peace of mind. We learned about the importance of travel insurance the hard way and now we never travel without coverage.