Sunday, September 30, 2007

Polish Wedding Traditions, The Marriage Proposal And Engagement

In the days of old in Poland, the wedding season began in September and continued through the fall and winter except during the holy seasons of Advent and Lent. The reason for this was because the harvest season had passed, the crops were in, larders were full, and the farmers' long days of work in the field were behind them. They had some leisure time to spend with family and friends, and food and drink to share with all.

I noticed early on in my family history research that most weddings took place in September, October, and November, with October being the most popular month. I didn't understand why at the time. It struck me as quite odd. I also noticed that the fall months were popular particularly for first marriages while second marriages seem to occur throughout the year. I have since come to realize that many second marriages occurred fairly soon after the death of a spouse because it was difficult to be at home raising the children and out in the fields working at the same time. Second marriages often came about out of necessity.

As was common throughout history, arranged marriages were the norm in old world Poland. Sometimes, as in the case of nobility, marriages were arranged between families when children were still young. Among the peasant class, marriage arrangements were more commonly made when a young lady was deemed to be of marriageable age (usually in her late teens or early twenties).

There were a variety of ways in which a Polish peasant with a marriageable daughter could indicate his desire to marry her off. This was done differently throughout the various areas of the country. In some areas a father would paint dots on one side of his house with whitewash. In another area fathers might paint spots on the fence surrounding their house. In one village the home of the marriageable girl would have a wreath of blue or windows painted blue. One also might see rue or rosemary planted in the garden, rue and rosemary being popular plants used to make wreaths.

If a young man was interested in said marriageable daughter, he would initiate the first contact with the family. This was done in a very contrived way allowing the man to save face if the family did not deem him to be suitable. It was a universal custom throughout all of Poland for an intermediary to act as a go-between on his behalf. This go-between went by different names in different areas, one of which was swat. The swat was usually an older and respected man in the community who could be trusted to act in the man's best interest, sometimes it would be a young man's godfather. One might think of this person as a "wedding planner" because they would see to the details of the marriage proposal, engagement, invitations, and some of the wedding itself.

The initial contact went something like this. The swat and the perspective groom would visit the home of the marriageable girl usually on a Thursday or Saturday and always under the cover of darkness. The reason for this was to provide some privacy from gossips as this was considered a delicate matter. Upon entering the house the men would bow and praise the Lord, ask about everyone's health, and then begin a very discreet inquiry with an allegory such as…"Do you have a goose for sale? If so, we'd like to buy her." As the inquiry was made the swat would bring out a bottle of whiskey or vodka and request the young lady bring him a whiskey glass. The refusal of the suitor was always done in a non insulting manner. If the girl went into the next room for a glass but did not return it was a sign of refusal. If the family did not believe the young man to be a suitable husband for their daughter they would deny that they had a goose for sale and with that the swat and the young man would leave the house. If the family excepted the vodka offered it was an indication of their willingness to consider the match. They would then indicate which day the swat and the young man should return for a final decision.

Assuming that the match was favorable to the young girl's parents, the young man and his swat would return a couple days later. Once again the swat would bring out the bottle of vodka and and ask for a whiskey glass. If the girl returned quickly with the glass it was an indication of her agreement to the match which would have been previously discussed and agreed upon by her parents. Then the swat would fill the glass with vodka, pass it to the father who would pass it to his daughter. She would drink from the glass and then offer the rest of the vodka to her prospective groom. Once the young man drank the rest of the vodka the agreement was sealed. Then and only then would talk began on dowries and settlements.

Next came the engagement period. An official engagement most often occurred on a Saturday when the swat and the young man dressed in their best clothes would return to the young girl's house. There they would be greeted by the young girl's relatives and close friends who would have gathered to celebrate the happy event. Then a ritual was performed which included an uncut loaf of bread and a white scarf. The swat would join the right hands of the couple above the loaf of bread and tie them together with the scarf. Then he would cut two pieces of bread for them to eat. Most commonly the groom would gift his bride with this ceremonial scarf. This engagement was considered as binding as the marriage itself. Following this, refreshments were served and small gifts were exchanged.

The morning after the official engagement, the newly engaged couple would visit the village priest. Their intention to be married would be duly noted. The engagement would last for three weeks while the banns were read at church. During this three week engagement the bride was excused from her daily responsibilities to prepare for the wedding. Her time would be taken up weaving material for her trousseau and preparing wedding gifts.

Wedding invitations were always delivered in person and in a certain obligatory manner. The first invitations were issued to friends or relatives who would act as bridesmaids and groomsmen. Next the bride and groom would invite their godparents. The remaining guests were usually invited on a Thursday after the first or second reading of the banns. In some areas of Poland those invitations would be extended by the brid- to-be and her maid of honor or mother. In other areas the guests would be invited by two of the groomsmen who with musicians in tow would go through the village issuing invitations. Most everyone in the village would be invited to the wedding out of courtesy this first time around. A second invitation would be issued on Saturday, the day before the wedding, and this invitation would be issued to those who were actually invited to the wedding. Weddings almost always occurred on Sundays.

The next article in this series will describe the night before the wedding, also known as the maiden evening.

The complete series of articles:
An Introduction To Polish Wedding Traditions
Polish Wedding Traditions, The Marriage Proposal And Engagement
Polish Wedding Traditions, The Wedding Eve
Polish Wedding Traditions, The Wedding Day(s)
Polish Wedding Traditions, My Recollections