Have you been invited to a traditional Polish wedding? Or are you just curious about how Polish wedding customs differ from ours in the UK? This guide to wedding traditions in Poland will tell you everything you need to know.
Let’s begin by outlining a few crucial differences between a Polish wedding and the type that typically takes place in Britain.
To start with, the couple will enter the hall at the same time, which means there’s no need for the groom to wait at the altar. What’s more, the duties of the best man are limited to walking down the aisle and holding envelopes; they’re not obliged to make a speech, or take care of the rings.
Throughout the evening, guest might occasionally join in a chorus of ‘gorzko!’ which basically amounts to a demand for the newlyweds to kiss. The term literally translates to ‘bitter’, and means that proceedings need a little sweetening up.
Polish weddings tend to go on for quite a while.
The reception will last long into the night, and often right up until morning. You’ll need plenty of stamina to make it through. Sometimes a second day of celebrations follows the first – this is called the Proprawiny, and it’s designed to finish up all the leftovers from the wedding itself. Some Polish weddings have been known to go on for three or even four days – but this is rarer nowadays.
At around midnight on the day of the wedding, a ceremony called ‘Oczepiny’ takes place. This represents the bride’s transition from youth into marriage. Traditionally the bride’s hair would have been braided throughout the ceremony, as a symbol of her youth and innocence.
The Oczepiny sees the braids undone and the hair cut to reflect her new status. The ceremony also incorporates the removal of the bride’s veil, which is swapped for a special wedding cap presented by the godmother. The bride is also supposed to refuse the cap three times before accepting it. The cap is then kept after the ceremony for use on special occasions.
This is a tradition that modern Polish women aren’t eager to observe, as it involves radical changes in hairstyle. Instead, the bride tends to remove her veil and throw it into an eager mob of female guests, in much the same way that a bride might throw a bouquet. Similarly, the woman who catches the veil is thought to be next in line to get married. Unlike the ceremonies we might be used to, however, the groom will also get in on the action, removing and throwing his tie into a crowd of male well-wishers.
If the wedding is traditional, the bride might throw a handful of straw rather than the veil, which will be passed to the maid of honour, who dances with the best man.
The first dance is one of several polish wedding traditions and customs still to be observed today. We tend to do this in the UK too, of course, but the big difference is the style of dance.
In Poland, the Polka is traditional – it’s very fast and energetic, and guests are encouraged to join in. Traditionally, any man present has been able to pay a token sum of money to dance with the bride. Nowadays, however, this tradition is rarely observed.
Another subtle difference you’ll notice at a Polish wedding surrounds the tradition of scattering confetti. Polish tradition dictates that the couple should be showered in oats and barley rather than rice.
Another variant sees Polish congregations shower the newlyweds in loose change as they emerge from the church. The couple is then expected to pick up every last penny, and wait for the guests to line up and greet them individually. This is the opportunity for guests to present a gift in the form of an envelope-full of cash; around £40 is a good amount, but you’re not going to be castigated for offering less. The money is among the most traditional Polish wedding gifts, so you needn’t worry about offering anything further.
Given all of these traditions, you might be wondering what you should wear if invited to a Polish wedding. While a minority of Polish weddings might still demand traditional dress, most couples elect for a more modern dress code akin to what’s typically worn at UK weddings, with the bride wearing white, the groom wearing a suit, and the guests wearing their best formal attire.
Polish wedding vows (or przysięga małżeńska) traditionally follow a religious format, with a reference to the Holy Trinity entering at the end. Both bride and groom promise to be honest, faithful and loving throughout the union, until death. In effect the vows carry the same meaning as those in other cultures, and unless you’re the person reciting them, they’re not something you’ll need to worry about.
As is the case in many Slavic countries, bread and salt feature prominently in Polish wedding customs. Upon arrival at the meal, the parents of both the bride and the groom will bring a large round loaf of white bread along with a salt pan. Guests tear off a hunk of bread and dip it into the salt. There’s a superstition, here: whoever breaks off the largest piece will end up the head of the household.
The food tends to be served over the course of several hours, with several hot entrees being served before the main meal. Traditionally, these might consist of grilled or roast meat and smoked fish. Tripe is not unheard of – but guests will have plenty of options to choose from. The couple cut the cake together and feed one another the first portions.
Once the bread has been consumed, Polish guests often “spontaneously” burst into song. The song is called ‘Sto lat’, which means ‘100 years’, and it’s sung at birthday parties, weddings, and any occasion where specific people are being commemorated.