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Marriage Customs Of Danubian Principalities

( Originally Published 1897 )

AS might be expected, the peasants of Bulgaria retain many very old marriage customs, although the upper classes are gradually assimilating those of the modern Greeks. Marriages are arranged either by the young man's parents or by professional match-makers, who fix the sum to be paid by him, which must be at least L50, together with a smaller sum (head money) paid to the girl's mother. Our present description applies to marriages among the peasants only.

Betrothals are, as a rule, celebrated on a Wednesday or a Thursday evening with much feasting and rejoicing. On these occasions documents are produced stating that the bridegroom elect promises to pay the amount previously arranged by his parents or the " match-maker," while his future father-in-law declares his willingness to furnish his daughter with a trousseau.

The contracting parties exchange rings and a priest gives them his blessing. At the feast the elder guests arrange themselves around a cloth spread out on the floor : and there is a great variety of dishes all flavoured with garlic. The young people's banquet is served in a separate room, and they afterwards dance outside the house, singing songs every now and then. The wine flows freely. At this feast the young man produces his presents to the bride, such as slippers, bracelets, earrings, a head-dress of gold and silver coins and a silver girdle. At first her father expresses dissatisfaction, and so the would-be husband goes on adding one coin at a time to the head-dress until the former is satisfied. These presents are collected in a wooden dish, such as the people use for making bread, and then the feasting continues as before. Some of the guests are pretty sure to drink to excess before daylight appears. Next day the betrothed young woman dons her pretty jewelry and coins, and then her engagement is recognised.

It would be incorrect to say that love-matches are unknown among the peasants of Bulgaria, but they occur very rarely. It must be confessed that the husband chooses and buys his wife much in the same way as he would purchase a yoke of oxen or buffaloes. His object is to find a strong, healthy partner for life, who will be willing to work, and, he hopes, become the mother of strong lads to help him in the hard labour of working his farm. Beauty, therefore, does not count for much ; strength commands a higher price in the markets.

If a young man fails to fulfil his promise of marriage he is fined somewhat heavily by the aggrieved parents. The interval between betrothal and marriage is not less than six months, and may be as much as two or three years. The bridegroom has time, therefore, to change his mind should he be in some way disappointed, but it is quite exceptional for engagements to be broken off. There is much for him to do before the marriage takes place ; he builds a house with his own hands and furnishes it, buying at the same time cattle to stock his little farm or peasant's holding.

The bride's father and mother also contribute towards the furnishing of their daughter's new home. When all is prepared the young man sends his parents, or it may be some friend, to announce that he wishes the wedding to take place shortly. Marriages take place on Sundays and at a time of the year when there is little outdoor work going on, as might be expected among peasants.

The village girls dance in front of the bride's house and the young men before the bridegroom's. As in Sicily, and some other parts, the bride's trousseau is on view at her home a day or two before the wedding ; the neighbours, at least the women, take a curious delight in the inspection. This takes place on the Friday ; next day the bride's girl friends (as in Turkey, Greece, &c.) assist her at the bath and braid her hair. She never takes a bath again, and never had one before. The girls present flowers and sweets, and then cheer their friend with songs and dances. Her parents make cakes and send them round to their friends : this little courtesy is equivalent to an invitation to the wedding feast. The marriage generally takes place at the church, but sometimes at the house of the bridegroom.

According to Mrs. Blunt,' marriages take place in a store-house, or granary, for the sake of safety. She says the custom of marrying in some retired part of the house is due to a dread of Turks, who might fall on the bridal party and rob them. This lady, writing in 1878, tells a tale of events of some months ago," which took place in a certain village in Macedonia. The dreaded Turks suddenly appeared on the scene, and after robbing and beating all the company, stripped the poor bride of all her belongings, and behaved with fiendish brutality. We need not mention details. When the ceremony has been performed at church the whole party go in procession to the bride's house, where the feast is held. Corn is sprinkled over the newly-wedded couple, and the young girls dance. The bride is veiled and kisses the hands of the married women present, each of whom gives her a fig. These wedding feasts, like those given at betrothals are very festive occasions, frequently marred by excessive drinking.

The following custom reminds us of what happens in some parts of Africa, for the unfortunate bride and bridegroom are shut up in their house for a week, during which time no visitors are allowed. At the conclusion of this term of imprisonment, married women come and conduct the bride to the village fountain, or spring, as in Greece, round which she walks three times. Then she kisses their hands and they give her figs. After which, let us hope, the water-nymphs will be good to her ! Nothing more is then required of the young wife but to visit her mother.

The Bulgarians of Macedonia have certain peculiar customs in connection with the home-coming of a bride. When the husband's house is situated at some distance from that of his father-in-law, the party that conducts the bride is led by one of the guests carrying a standard on which is placed an apple—symbol of love and maternity. All are mounted on horseback and gaily decked out with garlands of flowers. Thus she is led with much singing and laughter to her new home, and we seem to see here a faint reflection of some old Greek procession in honour of Bacchus. On arriving at the village they are met by the best man " and others with cakes, baskets of fruit, and flasks of wine. The nuncio (best man) leads a goat with gilded horns and carries the bridal crowns. Arrived at the house, the bride alights in the courtyard, where the standard has been placed. The father helps his daughter to dismount ; she kisses her horse on the forehead, and is led by her parent, each holding one end of a handkerchief, to the granary down below. Here is displayed the wedding cake, which rests on a barrel of wine. The priest, arrayed in gorgeous robes, marries the couple at this Bacchanalian altar ; they drink consecrated wine from a glass, and walk three times round the wine-barrel, while the company amuse themselves by throwing showers of sweets and fruit at them. There is the usual Greek ceremony of propitiating the water-nymphs at the well, in company with married women and girls. This is done by throwing in coins. It is interesting to find here the custom of throwing over the bride water from the well which she has herself drawn from it. In Russia the peasants throw water over both bride and bridegroom. Finally the bride kisses the hands of her women friends, and receives from each a fig, which is, of course, a symbolical act.

In Roumania, as in Bosnia and elsewhere, girls of a marriageable age wear coins and pearls on their heads as a sign to all that they have no objection to a husband. They begin at an early age to make garments for the trousseau. An Englishman once saw a little girl, six years old, knitting stockings for that purpose. The mothers are very anxious to let the young men know the extent of their daughter's trousseau, and allow them the privilege of inspecting the chest containing the necessary garments. Consequently the village bachelors become very mercenary, and if not satisfied with what they see, will look elsewhere for a wife. In a certain village the mothers anxious for a son-in-law seize the opportunity of carnival time to display the trousseau, by hanging out the various articles on a wall, or otherwise.

Fathers spend so much in providing for their daughters that the sons must look out for themselves, and seek well-endowed partners. The young lady must select her husband from a list of candidates—even when she has not the honour of their acquaintance. But the list informs her of their means and qualifications.

Some of their customs appear to be thoroughly Keltic : thus, in certain districts, on the wedding-day, when the bridegroom arrives at the house of his future wife, they make a pretence of being unwilling to give up their daughter, first of all bringing forward an old woman, as in the Tyrol, Brittany, and Switzerland.

An old custom, now dying out, is the Maiden Market," somewhat akin to the Bride-show of Russia. On the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29), the girls assembled on the top of a high mountain called Gaina. Trousseaux, packed in chests, were laboriously brought up in carts drawn by horses or oxen ; and, in order to make a fair show, articles were sometimes borrowed. Each family stayed in a tent. Then came the young men with their parents, and a strange sight it must have been. But there was more sense in this plan than might appear at first sight ; for in old days, the shepherds, who lived on the mountain sides, had very few opportunities of coming down into the valleys. And so, if the shepherds could not come to see the lassies, the lassies came up to them. Shepherds who had thus found wives went off with them, and the fathers and mothers down below were deserted. A girl betrothed at this fair would go to the village and offer a kiss to every decent man and woman she met. That was the way they bade farewell to their friends.

Bride and bridegroom frequently meet for the first time at the altar. It is on record that once a betrothed young man failed to appear at the church—perhaps having changed his mind. The situation was embarrassing, to say the least, for he could nowhere be found, though diligent search was made by messengers sent out for the purpose. Then a happy thought occurred to one of the party. The intended but missing bridegroom had a brother ; would he not do quite as well—or better ? " So messengers were sent off in hot haste to ask if he would be so obliging as to marry the young lady his brother had so basely deserted ? This invitation was accepted, and the bride married after all, which was better than coming away from the church unwedded ! The remedy was simple ; but one would think that the future relations between those two brothers must have been somewhat strained. It is to be hoped that the defaulter at least kept out of the way of his brother's wife.

Jilted suitors have a spiteful way of showing their disgust ; they go out at night and cut down all the hemp and flax in the, field from which the girl was about to spin the material for her clothes.

Marriages, among the upper classes, are celebrated late in the day ; among poor people somewhat early. The ceremony does not always take place at church. Coins are thrown on to a carpet, on which the bride and bridegroom stand. Crowns are placed on their heads by the officiating priest. Sweets, or nuts (in country districts), are showered upon them -- thus recalling the words of Virgil, " Nuces sparge, marite." The day ends with dancing and feasting.

In Bosnia the married Mohammedan women go about closely veiled, like Turkish ladies, whereas girls are allowed more freedom in this respect. Hence the Turks have a proverb—" Go to Bosnia if you wish to see your betrothed." Although marriages are arranged by parents, the young people are not denied opportunities of converse before the wedding, consequently love-matches sometimes take place, and young men find their way to the fair one's window to whisper words of love ; but, by a curious restriction, only on Mondays and Fridays. Acccording to a well-known story a Bosnian young lady committed suicide because her lover was slain in battle. Omer Pasha, in narrating the story, remarks : " It all comes of not wearing the veil, and letting affianced couples see each other. If she had always kept her yasmak on her face, she might have married another man, for there would have been no great love in the matter."

Amongst the Morlacci of Dalmatia, the suitor approaches the family of his young lady through an intermediary. On being accepted by the fair one, he sends her certain presents, such as shoes, a mirror, a ring, a comb, a red silk ribbon for tying the hair, and an apple, stuck all over with gold and silver coins. His family also sends her gifts, such as shoes ; for unmarried girls usually wear only sandals. The brideelect herself works stockings and garters for presents to the men of her future husband's family ; for the women, aprons, &c.

A good many official persons take part in the wedding ; for instance, there are the master of the ceremonies (stari-swat) ; the bridegroom's man (compare) ; the flag-bearer (berakdar), who carries a silk flag with an apple fixed to its spear-head—a symbol used by Bulgarians ; the two bridegroom's brothers (divari), who attend on the bride, carrying the umbrella over her ; the beadle (chaiis), who clears the way for the wedding procession. A woman accompanies the bride to the nave of the church. There the bridegroom and his compare kneel before the altar awaiting the bride. When the service is over the two brothers of the bridegroom conduct the bride back to her home, where the marriage feast is held. And here we find an Armenian custom cropping up, for the bride, on approaching the door of her husband's house, takes in her arms a child. She then kneels down and kisses the threshold of the door. Her mother-in-law hands her a sieve containing dried fruits, which she scatters among the guests, thus symbolising the abundance she hopes will come to her new home. The husband, at dinner time, leaves her in charge of his two brothers, with whom she sits in a separate room—why we cannot say. During the meal he must not use a knife—that would bring unhappiness, and so his best man cuts up his food for him. Next day, all go to church again, and another feast is given by the husband at his own house, and the bride gives presents to the guests.

In certain parts, where the girls wear red caps, the cap is replaced at the church door by a veil. The unmarried girls wear many coins on their caps as well as on the front of the bodice. This gives the young men a chance of seeing at a glance how much they are worth, and resembles the Russian Bride-show " described in the next chapter.

A Servian bride, before entering the bridegroom's house, must walk, or ride, three times round her mother-in-law, who holds a sieve of wheat in her hand. Then, on entering the house, she must walk three times round the hearth. A jester (the fans) throws the logs about the hearth, and the bride takes them up and sets them down properly.

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