The Zaonezhye region encompasses the eponymous peninsula and the islands in the northern part of Lake Onega. The local people are descended from the Novgorodians who started moving north at the beginning of the second millennium. Before that, the peninsula was populated by Baltic and Finnish tribes. As a result, the language and folklore of the Zaonezhye people still bears the traces of these ethno-cultural ancestors. This is the place where Russian epic literature has been preserved in its classical form, as well as lamentations, songs, and fairy tales that have become integral parts of Russian folklore. In particular, researchers have long been intrigued by the complex, multiphase marriage rituals in Zaonezhye.
Most marriages in Zaonezhye were celebrated in the wintertime, between the end of the Christmas fast and the start of Lent. Young men of marriageable age would start looking for brides at youth parties, and if they saw a pretty and smart girl with a decent reputation, they hurried to get engaged. However, the marriage proposal could only be made by the young man’s family after a council of relatives had also discussed the future bride’s dowry and her ability to do hard work around
There is a proverb among the Zaonezhye people: “Marriage is known by the amount tears.” This means that traditional marriage lamentations were very important. The better the invited keener, the more tears the bride shed, and the more successful the marriage.
Offer of Marriage
As the matchmakers entered the future bride’s house, they would first make the sign of the cross while looking at the icons. They greeted the hosts, and if they agreed to discuss the matter, the matchmakers would begin to praise the groom, especially his wealth. They might mention the number of cattle, the solid house, the furniture, or the good clothes he had.
The bride’s parents would then offer the matchmakers a form of insurance, such as their daughter’s dress or a silk kerchief, and discuss the timing of the marriage.
If the matchmaking was successful, the party travelled back with sleigh bells so that everyone would know from the sound that there was a new bride.
On a set date, the groom and his relatives would go to the bride’s house. After a communal prayer, the fathers of the couple would make a symbolic handshake with their palms wrapped in the flaps of their garments. This rite would bring wealth to the future spouses. Then, the whole bride’s family would do the same with each relative of the groom.
Thin ritual pies in the shape of a crescent, called “skantsy,” were baked especially for the handshake rite. The bride and groom would take a bite and then throw the pies into a crowd of girls. The first one to catch them was believed to be the next one to marry.
The second ritual meal was a huge pan of fried eggs. The groom would take a spoon, make a hole in the middle, and put money in it. This was considered a symbolic dowry for the future wife. The other girls would try to steal the dish from the table and eat it in order to speed up their own marriage.
After the feast, the bride would tie a white silk kerchief under the groom’s collar, which was worn until the day of marriage.
The Marriage Day
The marriage day would begin at the bride’s house with the arrival of the groom and his friends. Usually, a married relative was assigned the role of the groomsman, and the most eloquent member the bride’s family would be the marriage chief. His job was to drag out the negotiations for as long as possible. After such humorous negotiations, the guests were invited in.
They were served the first meal, called “tea.” However, the groom’s friends would refuse the treat until they saw the bride. The bride, with a silk kerchief on her head, would be led by her female friends, all singing a song, and then sit next to the groom on a special pillow. The women would begin singing praising songs, first about the groom and the bride. After the meal, the dancing would begin.
Then, the hot meal, or dinner, was served. Meanwhile, in the next room, the hosts would prepare gifts for the groom’s family. The bride’s entire face would be covered with a large kerchief as her friends sang a song and she was slowly escorted to the guests. When the song ended, the guests were presented with shots and gifts from the bride.
The marriage ceremony would culminate with the bride giving up her “freedom.” Before the arrival of guests, the bride’s hair was braided with several wide ribbons that symbolized her “freedom” and served as a ritual object. The bride was supposed to fight back while her brother untangled the ribbons, unclenched her fists, and undid the braid. He would then whip the other girls with the ribbons from the bride’s braid to speed up their marriage.
The godmother, aunts and other relatives would then begin dressing the bride for the ceremony. The bride’s traditional wedding attire included a dress shirt with puffy sleeves, a heavy silk tunic, a brocade or heavy silk jacket, and a large silk kerchief with tassels. On her head, she would wear a crown of pearls and beads with inserts of multicolored faceted glass and a string of pearl beads. The bride also wore pearl beads made of many threads around her neck and earrings made of freshwater pearls. Her wrists would be decorated with silver bracelets, and her fingers covered with silver or golden rings.
Before heading to the church, relatives would remove the icon under which the bride and groom were sitting and wrap it in a wedding towel. Parents blessed the bride and groom with this icon before the wedding.
The bride and groom would go to church in separate carts. Along the way, they’d be greeted by children and adults with “beacon” lights, shouting “hurray!” The participants of the wedding procession would throw coins at them.
After leaving the church, the husband would lift his wife in his arms and put her in his cart. A crowd of spectators would greet the newlyweds.
The wedding celebrations at the groom’s house were called “praisings.” A canvas was rolled out, stretching from the table inside to the street outside. The husband would carry his wife and put her on the canvas in front of his parents. They would bless the newlyweds with bread, salt, and an icon. Like before, there were two meals served: first tea, and dinner later. At the table, the guests would sing songs and dance.
While the guests were celebrating, the young wife would be taken to the upper room, where her mother-in-law parted her hair on two sides, combed it and put some money on her head. Then, she would twist her braids into a bun and add a gold-embroidered povoinik with a chepets, the two traditional headdresses of a married Russian woman.
The chief groomsman would bang a wooden roller on the shelf, calling everyone to order, and ask to praise the newlyweds. They would stand up and bow, then the chief would give a signal for all men to shout as loud as they could “To the newlyweds! Hurray!”
The young couple would spend their wedding night in non-living premises: the attic or a storage closet. The godmothers would lead them to the premises, where the bed would already be occupied by one of the male guests. The young wife had to pay him a ransom for the bed, in the form of a towel. Before going to bed with her husband, she would take off his shoes. In one of the shoes, there was a silver ruble coin that the wife would keep for herself.
In the morning, a sauna would be prepared for the newlyweds. After bathing, the young woman’s hair was combed and a woman’s cap was put on her head.
There would be another reception as well, this time featuring the closest relatives. The godmother would bring out a tray with two shots tied with red ribbons. She would then throw a clay pot on the floor next to the newly married couple, saying: “There go our newlyweds!”
When the feast was over, the friends and relatives of the newlyweds would go home, inviting the couple to visit.
A.Ankhimkova, Leading Specialist at the Kizhi Museum and Reserve
D.Knyazev, author of the project “Weddings of the Peoples of the World”
V.Kuznetsova, Research Supervisor and Folklore Specialist, candidate of Philological Sciences