Vesillia: Ukrainian weddings in Manitoba over the last century

by Orysia Paszczak Tracz


In addition to the obvious necessities of life that they were able to take on the journey to their unknown new home on the Canadian prairies, Ukrainian pioneers brought three items: the Bible, Taras Shevchenko's Kobzar, and a handful of soil tied into a handkerchief. Each of these symbolized the spiritual necessities and make-up of Ukrainians - no matter where in the world they were or were going to be. The Bible and the "Kobzar" represented the spiritual and national character of the people. The Ukrainian soil was the tangible, emotional link to Ukraine and its traditions, that are an integral part of every Ukrainian.

These traditions remain with the individual throughout the year and throughout every phase of life - from birth to death. It is remarkable how many customs and traditions there have been since prehistory, how many have faded away, and yet how many have remained and are practiced in a modern 21st century non-Ukrainian environment, a continent away from the homeland.

One tradition that has been a constant over the more than a century of Ukrainian presence in Canada, especially on the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, is the Ukrainian wedding. Non-Ukrainians are thrilled to get an invitation to a "real" Ukrainian wedding, because they know it will be something special, and truly a happy occasion.

A marriage, in any society, joins not only two individuals but also two immediate and extended families. The varied customs and rituals of marriage have their roots in ancient, even prehistoric times. For example, because the ancient Romans believed that the fourth finger of the left hand was directly connected to the heart, that is where the wedding ring was worn. In Central and Eastern Europe, the right hand is the prominent one, and most couples wear their wedding bands on the fourth finger of the right hand. Rice, confetti or now, in our environmental correct times, bird seed is thrown at the newly-married couple as an echo of the ancient wish for the couple's fertility.

Most Ukrainian wedding customs can be traced to the matrilineal culture of the Trypillian period, in which the two mothers play the prominent role, with the fathers participating only in the blessing of the couple. The bride's brothers are also involved in specific rituals. Other customs originated in medieval times. Many ritual wedding songs are about the kniaz' (king), i.e., the groom, his kniahynia (queen), i.e., the bride, the boyary (noblemen) or what now would be called ushers, and riding to the hunt. The chroniclers of the 10th through 12th centuries recorded the earlier courting and marriage practices of the various tribes of the ancient Slavs, including the abduction of women from one tribe by men of another. Usually these abductions took place near bodies of fresh water and, in time, were not a surprise. Slightly later practices involved the purchase of brides.

The statement "I do not wish to unshoe him," is recorded in 1128 in the Lavrentiiski Litopys (chronicle) about Rohnidas original refusal of the proposal of Volodymyr the Great. "Unshoeing" is one of the symbolic phrases still used to indicate betrothal. It represented the practice of the bride ritually removing the boots of her new husband on their wedding night. There must have been something about feet and shoes, because one of the special gifts to the bride, and sometimes to her mother, were boots from the groom. The hahilka (spring song) "Verbovaya Doschechka" ends with the young woman's expectation of receiving red boots from her betrothed.

Because the chroniclers were Christian monks, their depiction of these "heathen" pre-Christian practices was quite biased. However, Ukrainian pre-Christian traditions were so rooted in the people's psyche over the millennia that, in spite of official Church opposition and edicts well into the 15th to 17th centuries, these practices persisted. For example, these included caroling the ancient koliadky and schedrivky (now a Christmastime tradition), and the blessing of baskets of food and spring ritual dances (now done at Easter). The Church finally accepted this dualism, and the practices were incorporated into Christian rituals.

There is no way one could cover all the rituals of the Ukrainian wedding - just describing them would take almost as many days as the wedding itself. Yes, days, because a Ukrainian wedding, both back in Ukraine and on the Canadian prairies, is not over in a few hours.

The power of tradition was so strong that in Ukraine, well into the 19th century, the family and community did not consider a couple married just because they went through the religious marriage ceremony in church if they had not also gone through the many stages of the traditional family "vesillia" at home (the matchmaking, betrothal/engagement and wedding). Even the word vesillia is descriptive - vesillia means wedding, and has as its root the verb "veselytysia" to merrymake, to be joyful.

The church ceremony was just a religious and legal requirement. It did not marry the couple in the eyes of the community. With just a church wedding, the couple continued to live in their respective parents' homes, and behaved as unmarried individuals until the traditional ritual vesillia took place. In 1991 I spoke with a Winnipeg woman whose son had just married in a civil ceremony in Toronto. She was a mass of nerves, planning a "proper" wedding for him and his bride here in Winnipeg. And even though the church ceremony was important to her, it was the vesillia with family and friends that would make this marriage "proper." The word "shliub" (shliubuvaty - to promise) denotes the marriage ceremony in church, and the word vesillia refers to the ritual family and community wedding ceremonies.

The traditions of the ancient vesillia have stayed so strong that many non-religious, pre-Christian rituals became part of the church ceremony itself. By the turn of the 19th to 20th century the church ceremony became an integral part of the vesillia. In "Syny Zemli" (Sons of the Soil), his classic novel about Ukrainian Canadian pioneer life, Illia Kyriyak has the parents worrying that there is no church and no priest to marry their children, "so that I and the people would see them saying their vows, because that is the way it has been from time immemorial, and should be always." But the church ceremony was not enough. A father fretted that his daughter married quickly in church, and believed it was his holy obligation to give her a wedding according to the customs of the ancestors, "as it should be." The mother complained that she did not see who dressed and prepared her daughter for the church ceremony, "so we should at least welcome our guests according to our ancient vesillia custom ..."

After a detailed description of the wedding customs intertwined with phrases from ritual wedding songs, Kyriyak concludes the chapter: "And the ancient 'kings' and 'noblemen' never even dreamed that their descendants, their common descendants, would follow their wedding custom after hundreds of years in a foreign land, in a new world."

And follow the wedding customs they did. Some of the basic elements of the Ukrainian vesillia on the Canadian prairies - with some variations in the rest of North America - are: the social; divych vechir (young women's evening) or "vinkopletyny" (plaiting of the wreaths), an evening for the bride and her friends; the blessing of the couple by the parents and grandparents before leaving for church; ritual songs and instrumental folk music accompaniment; periwinkle and/or myrtle wreaths, or gold crowns (a later element); the "korovai" (wedding bread) and other ritual breads; hiltse (decorated tree branch), a tree of life and fertility; "darovannia" (which has developed or deteriorated into the "presentation"); and the "popravyny" (reception on the day following the wedding).

The "social" is a Manitoban phenomenon (with some roots in Saskatchewan). It's a fund-raising zabava, or dance. It is held a month or more before the wedding, and is organized by the bridal party and friends of the couple. Tickets are sold in advance (usually about $10), and the liquor tickets, silent auctions and raffles at the event raise even more money. The net amount is presented to the couple. The social is held in a hall, and usually a few hundred people attend. In Manitoba, other than the main wedding social, other socials are held to raise funds for all kinds of organizations or special causes, from the Orchid Society of Manitoba Social, to the Gay and Lesbian Club Social, to those sponsored by political parties. Others are special fund-raisers for an accident victim, or an orphan, or some other charitable goal.

Vinkopletyny, or divych vechir, is an evening before the wedding for the bride and her female family members and friends, at which the wedding wreaths are plaited. Myrtle (mirt) and periwinkle (barvinok) symbolize eternal love, purity, and fertility. Periwinkle is an evergreen ground-covering vine, and is probably older in Ukrainian tradition than myrtle, which is a Mediterranean shrub kept as a house plant in Ukraine.

Wreaths for both the bride and groom, to be worn during the marriage ceremony, were plaited during vinkopleteny, with each participant of the evening helping to weave in at least one sprig. Originally, only the bride's unmarried female friends were present to bid farewell, to plait the wreaths and to decorate the hiltse (the cut top of a tree adorned with ribbons, flowers, herbs, and other ornaments). In Canada this practice had fallen by the wayside, to be replaced not only by the bridal shower, but by the monster hall shower, which seems to have prairie origins (with even major appliances presented as shower gifts).

Over the last three decades or more, the terms vinkopleteny and divych vechir have resurfaced. There are even invitations specifically for this occasion, now in essence a combination of shower and wreath plaiting. While few women now know or remember the ritual songs to accompany this evening, these also are being revived. In 1989, the Voloshky Singers and friends of Vancouver, under the musical direction of Ann Kvitka Kozak, recreated vinkopleteny in a stage production. An audiocassette and booklet of this unique and beautiful "Vinkopletennia" production is available. "Vinkopleteny" refers to the entire ritual, while "vinkopletennia" is the plaiting of the wreath.

The wreaths are placed on the heads of the couple by the priest during the marriage ceremony. In some churches, large golden crowns are used instead. Depending upon custom or personal preference, the wreaths and crowns are either placed directly on the heads, or are held above the heads by the best man and maid of honor, or the "starosty" (the elder matchmakers). The wreaths and crowns indicate that the bride and groom are the queen and king of their family. The periwinkle wreaths are a much more ancient symbol than the crowns, the latter stemming from medieval times.

The blessing of the couple by the parents before departure for the church represents respect for parents and elders, and the unity of the family. Originally, the bride and groom were blessed separately in their respective homes, and arrived at the church separately. In the last century, and now in traditional North American Ukrainian weddings, the groom is blessed by his parents (and grandparents, if living) in his home, then arrives with them at the bride's home, where either her parents bless them, or all parents bless the couple together. Usually the couple travels to the church together (there are no superstitions about the groom seeing the bride before church).

The bride is not led down the aisle and given away by her father. The priest greets the couple in the vestibule, where what was once a separate betrothal ceremony takes place. Equality of the bride and groom is seen in the old word for both husband and wife "druzhyna," from the root "druh," which means companion or friend. Often a program is distributed in church for the wedding guests, listing the wedding party and explaining the ceremony and rituals. This is done specifically to provide information for non-Ukrainian guests.

"Rushnyky" (embroidered ritual cloths) played and still play an integral role in wedding customs. In pre-Christian times, the rushnyky with their symbolic embroidered or woven designs were considered sacred objects, talismans that protected, influenced fate, and warded off evil spirits ("nechysta syla," or, literally, the unclean power). In various rituals, the rushnyk accompanied a person from birth to death.

During the wedding ceremonies, it was worn tied diagonally across the upper body of the starosty and "druzhby" (groomsmen); tied around the upper arm of the groom; worn as a sash by the bride, and used to hold the icons during the parental blessing. The rushnyk was stood and knelt upon in church (the lyrics of a few folk songs indicate this when the young woman sings "I want to stand on a rushnyk with you"); it symbolically bound the hands of the couple as they were led around the tetrapod (the small table in front of the altar) three times; and it held the korovai and other wedding breads, because bread - especially ceremonial, ritual bread - is not to be held in bare hands.

Special motifs were embroidered especially for wedding rushnyky. Myroslava Stakhiv, an expert embroiderer, explained that the motif of two birds facing each other represented the bridal couple. The number of little birds surrounding the main design indicated the number of children being wished for the couple.

For Ukrainians, bread is holy and reverent; it is to be treated with the utmost respect. As with the rushnyky, there is a special bread for every holy day of the year and for every family occasion from birth to death. The wedding breads are especially varied and ornate. There was not only the main bread, the korovai, but also special breads for the bride, the groom, the bridesmaids, the druzhby, the parents and other members of the wedding party. Now in North America, in general, usually only the korovai is baked.

The korovai was originally a sacrifice, with its root in the Sanskrit "kravya," or meat, and blood ("krov," in Ukrainian), or in the Sanskrit "kr," to make or do. It is a large round bread (the roundness represents the sun), its top ornately decorated with symbolic baked-on dough ornaments, especially little birds and pine cones. Wheat stalks, herbs, nuts, flowers and fruit also were attached. The style and ornamentation of the korovai depended upon region.

The sharing of the korovai by all the guests, done with great ceremony and ritual, was the actual culmination of the vesillia (as illustrated by M. Zynoviev in an etching, "Rozdacha Korovayu" - the serving of the korovai, 1891 in Nyva). During war or hardship, when a wedding was impossible, the blessing and sharing of bread was enough to constitute a marriage in the eyes of the community.

By the 1930s on the prairies, under pressure for Ukrainians to assimilate, the white wedding cake generally replaced the ritual bread. Later, both the korovai and a wedding cake were part of the wedding reception, with the former remaining symbolic, and the cake being served. But, beginning in the late 1960s, the korovai again became an integral part of the wedding tradition. But instead of the old custom of druzhby ceremoniously approaching each sitting guest with the korovai, it is now distributed by the couple as the wedding guests greet them during the presentation. Often guests receive little baked dough birds or tiny "kolachi" (another type of ceremonial bread) as a remembrance. These birds are either removed off the korovai, or are separately baked especially for this purpose, and have an attached tag with the names of the couple and wedding date.

Since "small" Manitoba weddings have about 200 to 300 guests, there is a lot of baking ahead of time. Often there is one korovai for serving and one to be kept by the couple permanently (it dries out). Many women are expert korovai bakers. When ordering a korovai the bride is asked whether she wants one for eating, or for drying." This is because the dough would be prepared differently. I had the pleasure of tasting a korovai in Lviv, and cannot get over the lush, rich bread with a touch of honey. The small dough birds given as favors to the guests along with the korovai and cake are no comparison to the favors distributed to guests in some U.S. cities.

Sometimes, hand-painted individually signed ceramic dessert plates in Ukrainian designs are prepared to order for each of the hundreds of guests. In less politically correct times, small individual ash trays, in Hutsul or Trypillian motifs, were the favors.



Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, October 27, 2002, No. 43, Vol. LXX

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