To Live with Bread and Butter, in Prosperity and Happiness. Traditional Besermyan wedding

Why does the bride go to the spring with a carrying pole and offer water for money? Why does the groom chop wood at the wedding? Ethnographer Elena Popova and photographer Denis Knyazev try to shed light on these questions in a project dedicated to the traditional wedding of the Besermyan.

The Besermyan are one of the indigenous small-numbered peoples of Russia living in the Ural-Volga Region in the northwest of Udmurtia. The Besermyan carefully preserve their culture and traditions, which are most fully manifested in wedding ceremonies.

Dating and Matchmaking

In Besermyan villages, the lads and gals get acquainted and size up one another at games and gatherings. Gatherings are usually held in a bathhouse or in someone’s house after the end of fieldwork in the fall, and games and festivities take place once the fieldwork is over in the spring. The lads express their sympathy by inviting the gals to the dance or by choosing them in the game, whilst the gals ask their friends or younger relatives to pass a beautiful pouch with treats to the lads they liked. If the lad comes to the next festivity with the pouch, it means their sympathies are mutual. Weddings are usually arranged in the middle of fall or in the middle of winter. Matchmakers come to the gal’s house at the crack of dawn. They talk about the purpose of their visit in a roundabout way: they say they came to look for a lost heifer or buy one. If the gal’s parents agree, the matchmakers are invited in for a meal. At the end of the spread, the matchmakers are given a pledge — towels and handkerchiefs as proof that the matchmaking has gone well.

Preparing for the Wedding

Before the wedding, the relatives get to know each other. At first, the groom’s relatives come to the bride’s parents to discuss the wedding day, the size of the dowry, and wedding expenses, bringing treats with them: pastries, bread, baked goose. Then, the bride’s relatives go to the groom’s house “to see the place.” They examine the premises, barns, and livestock to assess the wealth of their future in-laws.

In the meantime, the bride’s parents help the bride prepare the dowry and gifts for the groom’s relatives. They sew the clothes, things for home decoration, a canopy for the newlyweds’ bed. On her own or with the help of an experienced seamstress, the bride sews a shirt and pants for the groom. The older women help put gifts and goodies — berry pastilles, sweets, scraps of cloth, shawls, coins — into the chest. The feather bed and pillows are folded separately.

On the eve of the wedding, a bathhouse is heated at the bride’s place, and a bachelorette party is thrown where the bride has her hair tied in two braids instead of one, with ribbons, pieces of fabric, and silk (gifts from the relatives and friends) woven into them. Changing a hairstyle symbolizes a farewell to girlhood.

Praying to the Ancestors and Departure of the Wedding Train

On the eve of the wedding, a prayer and a “soup for the ancestors” ceremony are held in the groom’s house. With a bowl of soup or barley porridge in his hand, the oldest man in the family appeals to the ancestors with a request for a successful wedding and happiness for the groom and bride.

The groom’s wedding train (participants of the wedding moving in file) leaves in the morning. There is always an odd number of people led by the wedding planner. Another important person is the best man who gives money and gifts on behalf of the groom. Before leaving, the wedding planner sits down at the table and asks the ancestors and deities for a successful wedding and happiness for the groom and bride. Then, the wedding train sets in motion to the bride’s house.

Wedding Feast at the Bride’s House

When the wedding train approaches the bride’s house, its gates are always closed. To enter the gates, it is necessary for the groom’s company to pay money or take part in a silly contest, for example, chop or saw some wood. When the wedding train finally enters the house, a wedding feast awaits them, although the bride and groom are not invited to the table: the groom sometimes sits in a seat of honor in the red corner of the house, and the bride, surrounded by her friends, awaits her betrothed in the kitchen, in the hallway, or barn. At the end of the feast, the groom and the wedding planner approach the bride and ask: “Do you have a right hand? Does it know how to spin and weave, hold a spoon?” The bride shows her hand from under the canopy, and the groom puts money in it.

The culmination of the feast at the bride’s house is a farewell to her family. The bride’s parents and relatives sit down on a bench, and the bride and groom kneel before them and bow to each of them. The bride’s relatives bless the newlyweds and give them money for future happiness and prosperity, whilst the groom’s relatives shower the newlyweds with gifts and lead them outside. Once they are out, the door is immediately closed lest the girl not return, and the happiness of the house not go after her.

Meeting the Newlyweds and the Wedding Night

At the groom’s house, the couple is greeted with bread and butter, a symbol of prosperity and happiness. In the evening, the daughter-in-law gets her special feast with fellow villagers and relatives paying her a visit. After the feast, the newlyweds bow to the groom’s parents and are accompanied to the barn. The bride takes off the groom’s headdress and shoes, and the money, previously hidden in the boots, is considered to be a gift to the bride. In the morning, the newlyweds go to the bathhouse. After that, the groom puts on a shirt and pants the bride has given him before, and the bride covers her head with a large red handkerchief: its edges cover her back and shoulders, and long brushes cover her face.

The wedding continues with a feast at the groom’s house, an inspection of the contents of the chest, and an exchange of gifts. The bride gives the groom’s relatives shirts, shawls, and towels. In gratitude, she receives money. Then, she takes the drink from the chest that she has prepared beforehand (the “wine of the young married woman” they call it) and offers it to the guests. Taking a sip, the guests put money on a tray in gratitude. At the end of the celebration, the groom’s parents serve a drink to the wedding planner who thanks the ancestors for helping with the wedding, drinks a little, and breaks the glass. This means the end of the wedding and the wedding feasts.

Rituals after the Wedding

After the wedding, the young wife joins the household and gets acquainted with the deities and patron spirits of the new family. She goes to the spring, from where her husband’s family take water, bows to the spring, and puts bread and coins into the water, and her husband’s relatives ask the deity of the spring not to scare a new family member. Once back, the bride offers water to her in-laws and receives money in return. The bride’s introduction to the hearth consists of making flatbread and sweeping the floor. The relatives scatter straw and money across the house and smash a clay pot. The young woman sweeps the litter and collects coins, and everyone is trying to understand how good she is.

After the wedding feasts, both families also arrange a “small wedding” — that is, a feast for elderly relatives who did not take part in the wedding. If it takes place in one village, then at first the table is set in the house of the bride’s parents, and then they go to the groom’s house.

Three days after the wedding, the bride visits her parents’ house. Her family and friends come to see her and once again give her some pieces of canvases and fabrics, handkerchiefs, coins, and towels, securing them on her headdress. Gifts for the groom are sewn onto his hat.

The wedding festivities come to an end with the ceremony of handing over the dowry. Once the wedding ceremony is over, the bride’s parents give livestock as a dowry as per the tradition. Usually, it is a heifer and some geese. A red towel, a piece of red bunting, or a red thread is tied around the animals’ necks lest they be jinxed. On this day, a feast is held marking the completion of the rituals and the fulfillment by the parties of all economic and legal obligations to each other.

Elena Popova, ethnographer, Candidate of Historical Sciences,
Udmurt Federal Research Center of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Denis Knyazev, photographer, author of the project