Vesillia: Ukrainian weddings in Manitoba over the last century
by Orysia Paszczak Tracz
In Ukraine, there were two receptions as part of the "vesillia" (wedding) - one in the bride's home, and later, after her formal departure from her parents' home, at the groom's. This is a remnant of clan (rid) life of Ukrainian prehistory and early history. An echo of this on the Canadian prairies is the strange, to some, practice of holding the wedding and reception in one location (one partner's city or town), and a week later holding another reception - in full wedding regalia - in the other partner's town. This is a most practical gesture towards guests who would otherwise have to travel great distances for the first reception.
Regard for guests and general Ukrainian hospitality are also reflected in the meal served, with food and drink plentiful to over abundance. I still remember the bewildered expression on my father's face when he returned from an American wedding reception where only sandwiches, cake and wine were served. He remarked: "We did not even sit down. This was a wedding?!" This was not the way to treat wedding guests, as far as my father was concerned. Music and ritual songs accompanied every stage of the wedding ceremonies. Whole volumes are devoted to vesilni pisni (ritual wedding songs). It has been written many times that the vesillia is like a musical play, with the women's "choir" (svashky) singing songs particular to each stage of the wedding ritual. Folk musicians (usually playing the skrypka - fiddle, tsymbaly, sopilka - flute, and drums) led the wedding procession from the church to the bride's home and then on to the groom's. They also played at the vesillia and into the last day of the wedding.
This does not now occur in Manitoba (it still does in rural Ukraine), but a remnant of this custom is a folk band (usually three or four) playing special melodies at the door as guests enter the reception hall to be greeted by the wedding party. The music is so happy that the guests are already moving to the music as they wait in the reception line. The band also plays folk dance melodies during the presentation.
A combined greeting now happens at the beginning of the reception. Traditionally, the parents (and earlier, only the mothers) would greet the couple with a "kolach" (round braided bread), salt, and a shot of horilka or wine on a tray lined with a "rushnyk" (ritual cloth) as they arrived for the vesillia. Now, the bridal party and parents first greet all the wedding guests in a receiving line at the door of the reception hall. Then, after a break, the parents, with bread and salt, ceremoniously greet the couple reentering the hall. The table and hall decorations are important at weddings in Manitoba also. There is a Ukrainian theme throughout, with a variety of Ukrainian flowers, wheat, shawls and other motifs on the tables and walls of the hall. Centerpieces on the tables could be small kolachi with candles or flowers and wheat stalks in the center, or "embroidered" candles, or featuring some other Ukrainian-style motif. At a wedding of a fifth-generation Canadian couple (their ancestors were among the first pioneers), the reception was a glorious blast of Ukrainian shawls, flowers and wheat.
Now about that clinking of glasses - you either love it or hate it. There is a custom to tap a glass with a piece of cutlery as a signal that you want the bridal couple to stand up and kiss. One person starts the clinking, and soon the whole hall is ringing. Where this started, I do not know. Some say it is a Ukrainian custom, or an Italian one, or Polish, or ... I have not found any mention of this in Ukrainian sources.
Nowadays, to stop the clinking, it is announced by the master of ceremonies that if you sing a song, or recite a verse of some kind, then the couple will kiss, but not if glasses are clinked. The Ukrainian tradition to get the couple and other members of the wedding party to kiss is to call out "Hirko!" (it is bitter) or to sing verses indicating this. Since something is "bitter," kissing will sweeten it. Here in Manitoba, recent immigrants from Ukraine and Poland have continued this Ukrainian tradition, and now the locals of many generations have picked it up. What was a formal ritual of gifting - darovannia - of the bride and groom to each other, of the parents and couple reciprocally, and of the rest of the wedding party by the couple, has taken on a life of its own.
Originally, the "perepii" (drinking together, or drinking over) was combined with the darovannia, as each guest approached the table behind which the couple stood. The guest greeted the couple with beautifully versed wishes for a good life together and placed a gift into the bowl or "povnytsia" (literally, that which should be/is filled). The couple, in turn, expressed thanks and shared a drink with the guest. The wishes were primary, even though the gifts were also treasured and part of the ritual.
In Canada, in pioneer times, the presentation (the western Canadian term for this) was a necessity for the newlyweds to set up a household. Over the century, it has turned into quite a mercenary practice, with the word "presentation" even printed on the wedding invitation. Presentation means "give money, not gifts." The first time I saw this, I was shocked at the brazenness. But, "scho kray to obychai" (when in Manitoba, do as the Manitobans do). Perhaps I'm judging too harshly, because for many guests it is a convenience to know ahead of time what the couple prefers. This custom is now so popular, and so accepted, that non-Ukrainians, be they Filipino or Italian or English, also have presentations. The final presenters to the couple are members of the wedding party. The last presenter is the groom himself who, in jest, is usually picked up by his ushers and turned upside down. As his pockets empty, the contents are given to the bride. At one wedding, the bride was ceremoniously handed all his credit cards.
In addition to the presentation, the Ukrainian tradition of a full meal and a dance (for us, just a normal wedding) has been adopted by many other Canadians, who in their traditions did not have these as parts of their weddings. Of course, there is another spread awaiting the guests close to midnight, with buffet tables set out, and a whole banquet of glorious tortes arranged on long tables - each torte fancier than the other. These are brought by family and friends of the couple. No wonder my father thought the sandwich and piece of cake were an insult!
A new trend at some receptions is a staged performance on the dance floor by a Ukrainian dance group. Quite often this is a token gesture to show one's heritage, even though few of any other customs have been followed while, most times, it is just part of the rich program of the vesillia. More spontaneous and genuine are the folk dances by wedding guests themselves, many of whom belong to Ukrainian dance ensembles. They fly through the "kolomyika" and rock to everything else. Often, if the one or both of the couple are in a dance group, their friends perform for them as a gift, then change into evening attire for the rest of the reception.
Even though most ritual wedding songs have been forgotten, except by the old-timers, during orchestra breaks the guests gather in groups and sing folk songs. Instantly, you have a choir, because Ukrainians automatically sing in multi-part harmony.
One somewhat controversial revived ritual is "pochipchyny" - the ceremonial removal of the bride's veil, and its replacement with a traditional "khustyna" (patterned kerchief). Because a married woman did not leave the house with her head uncovered, the khustyna was symbolic of a married woman. To some brides this is another special old ritual, to others it is an insensitive symbol of the subjugation of women or something similar. Some brides want this ritual, others do not. In hindsight, if we looked into the origins of wedding traditions around the world, maybe we would find most traditional weddings to be politically incorrect.
Wedding attire has changed. The first pioneers wore their finest embroidery and full costumes, with the usual embellishment for this occasion. Later, we see a blend of old country and new land, with some members of the wedding party in folk dress, others in formal attire. Still later, the bridal party looked like any other Canadian wedding party. Often you could tell the Ukrainian connection by the large boutonnieres worn by the groom and ushers - the flowers usually had long fancy ribbons attached.
Beginning in the mid-1960s through the present, couples show pride in their Ukrainian heritage not only by practicing the wedding customs, but also wearing special attire. Embroidered wedding gowns, traditional wreaths and other headcovering, embroidered shirts for the groom, and even full Ukrainian folk costumes for the whole wedding party became popular. The designs of the gowns are quite exquisite. For many decades now, wedding invitations have had a Ukrainian flavor, and are usually bilingual.
One custom thankfully discontinued long ago is the ancient one of the "komora," in which the couple spent their first night at the groom's parents' house. They were to consummate their marriage, and proof of the bride's virginity (blood on her nightshirt) was to be shown to the wedding guests. Even then the double standard existed, with no one wondering about the groom's virginity. Similar customs existed throughout traditional Europe. Great feasting, dancing and celebrating followed the display of the nightshirt.
The remnant of this final phase of the vesillia is the comfortable and hospitable "popravyny" (from the verb "popravyty," "popravliaty," to make better, to improve). This is a reception held on the day after the wedding, usually at the home of the bride's or groom's parents. The members of the wedding party, close relatives, guests from out of town and others gather for food, drink, singing, and visiting. There is not much ceremony or formality. Usually the couple open their gifts and gift envelopes during the popravyny. For summer weddings, this party is held outside.
At first, the pioneers tried to hold on to as many customs as they could. Then, with pressure from the Anglo-Saxon majority to "talk white" and to assimilate, they adopted "Canadian" wedding customs and dress. But at home, in church and during the reception, it was still a Ukrainian atmosphere, with certain indispensable customs. The Church - both Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox - played an important role in preserving and practicing the rituals which centuries ago its hierarchy condemned as "heathen." Once Ukrainians joined other churches in western Canada, such as the Presbyterian or Methodist, they lost the rituals and practices that made them "practicing" Ukrainians.
The back-to-the-earth movement of the mid-1960s reinforced or reawakened the identity of the younger generation who did not have to search for long-forgotten rituals or invent new ones. In its own way, that generation took what had always been part of their Ukrainian heritage and proudly adapted it to the contemporary Canadian scene. Many non-Ukrainian guests at these weddings express their benevolent envy at the beauty and richness of the traditions. The Ukrainian wedding is one of the testaments of the riches of an ancient culture quite alive after thousands of years. Who knows what the new generations will come up with in the second century of the Ukrainian presence in Canada!
The following is excerpted from "O Canada, Whatever You Are: Desperately Seeking Identity" by Robert Nielsen of Hamilton, Ontario, in The Globe and Mail:
My family attended the wedding of the art director of my publishing firm. The ceremony was held in a small, ornately decorated church, and my daughter was favorably impressed by the bride and groom who wore beautiful golden crowns. At the reception afterwards, the guests lined up and gave gifts of money to the newlyweds, which seemed like a smart idea.
We sat down for a meal at long tables, along which were bottles of rye every six feet. There was no shortage of toasts. My art director gave a speech; I had known her for 10 years, and had never heard a word out of her that was not English. Suddenly she was in front of a happy throng speaking fluent Ukrainian - and almost everybody understood. Toward the end of the evening a group of old men spontaneously formed at the front of the hall and began to sing. They sang the most plangent songs I had ever heard, beneath which I could detect a terrible longing for their homeland. They sang song after song, and they all knew all the words.
I felt jealous. About the golden crowns, the money ceremony, the different language, the bottles of rye on the long tables. But most of all I felt jealous about the songs. If I were at a wedding reception for fellow Canadians in some distant land, what would I sing?...
I am a 50-something-year-old man who was born in Vancouver and has lived all but two of his years in Canada. I am angry because my country has not given me any songs to sing; it has not given me any costumes to wear; it has not given me any stories to tell. I feel culturally deprived; there is a kind of emptiness that is driven home in a myriad situations, including each time I hear an immigrant, or son or daughter thereof, speaking another language. I sense that it gives them a secret life, another level of existence that enriches them, and to which they can retreat at any time...
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For more information on Ukrainian weddings, check out:
This audiotape and booklet with all lyrics and music was released by The Voloshky Singersand friends, with Musical Director Ann Kvitka Kozak. It includes some of the loveliest singing you have ever heard, with songs most of us have neverheard. Order from: Ann Kvitka Kozak, 2516 Bendale Road, North Vancouver, BC V7H 1G7 Canada. Price: $15 in Canada; $17 for U.S., (U.S. funds).
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 3, 2002, No. 44, Vol. LXX
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