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Traditional Courtships

Valentine’s Day is a time for couples and lovers. Young Bulgarians celebrate in much the same way as people in the West with romantic dinners for two, surprise gifts and cards. This is all a relatively new phenomenon here and not something that middle aged or older couples would celebrate. In days gone by courtships were carried out in a very traditional manner according to a set of rituals laid down over generations.

Attracting Attention

Young men who saw a girl they liked would often make their intentions known by following her as she went to get water and asking her for a drink. It wasn’t all one sided and left to the man to make all of the moves. If a girl liked a boy she could make a move by dropping her handkerchief for him to pick up or leaving him a flower. The girl never watched to see if the boy accepted her gesture, instead if he did, he would send his father to the girl's family.

Traditional folk tales tell of future brides setting tasks for their intended like finding a particular gift or travelling the length of the country to buy cattle. Before Communism took root, couples who were attracted to each other or considered as suitable marriage candidates would attend a "sgleda," which like a first date and gave them the chance to get to know each other.

Dad’s Role

Traditionally, the father in a Bulgarian family was the most important voice, but marriages have never been pre-arranged in Bulgaria and of course the bride was free to choose her partner, although if he was someone that the family did not like they would be quick to point out his faults and this often ended the relationship. Once a boy told his father that he liked a girl, his father would make his son’s intentions by visiting the girl’s father bearing gifts like Rakiya and a bunch of zdravets, a plant signifying health and prosperity. If the girl’s father was happy he would give the marriage his blessing. The father would ask his daughter three times if she accepted the marriage. By this time the girl and the boy had seen each other on several occasions so it was often not a surprise to the girl when his father came to visit, however, if the girl did get an unexpected proposal she was free to decline it. If she approved of the match her parents would send gifts to the boy’s family.

The Engagement

Once the relationship was established the engagement would take place. It was often held at the girl's house on a specially chosen holiday or on a Sunday. Relatives and neighbours were invited for a big feast, of eating, drinking, singing and dancing. During this celebration the wedding date would be set and this was seen as being legally binding. The period between the engagement and the wedding lasted from one day to a year, sometimes longer. The length of the engagement depended on the income of the families concerned. Some preferred to save up to build a house or wait until they had enough money to start a family. During the engagement the girl could meet with her intended but he was not allowed to go to her house without an invitation. One of the girls’ tasks during this time was to weave, knit and sew things for her wedding costume and the new home including the bed linen for her wedding night.

The Stag and Hen Parties

Stag and hen parties are nothing new. In old Bulgaria they took place before the wedding. They were held at each couples house without the partner being there. Each family would kill a chicken in honour of the new family and in some parts of the country the families would give sweets and food away to everyone in the locality. In the week before the wedding a number of rituals were performed; bread was baked by the oldest lady in the bride’s family and decorated with various adornments representing wine, animals, people and holy crosses – each pattern carried a different meaning. As the bread was made the old lady would sing wedding songs and when it was ready t go into the oven, she would put across on the top and bless it. Another tradition was to make a wedding tree, which would be carried in front of the wedding procession. This was the task of the groom’s brother or best friend. The branch from a fruit tree had to be felled with one swing of the axe and decorated with a hand-woven handkerchief, an apple, dravets, popcorn and on top, an onion. Ivy, which also symbolized happiness, was intertwined with the red and white thread used to make Martinitsa on March 1st.  

The Reception

The ceremony would take place in the local church and afterwards the wedding procession would head for the groom's house so that the groom’s mother could formally greet the new family. She spread a white, long, white, hand-woven cloth strewn with flowers at the entrance of the house to signify the purity of the bride and the beauty of married life. The newlywed couple stood on the cloth and greeted the guests. They were then given a piece of bread known as pitka, topped with honey whilst the groom’s mother wished a happy, sweet life together. She then gave them a glass of wine and wished them a long and strong relationship. Whoever tore off the biggest piece would be the dominant one in the relationship. The celebration then commenced with food, and drink, singing and dancing.

The Wedding Night

If the groom had sisters, they were responsible for preparing the wedding bed and they would sit on the bed until the groom gave them money. It was commonplace in some areas for people to listen at the door as the couple made love for the first time and people would prophesy about the baby being created. Sometimes a crowd gathered waiting for the husband to leave the room and once he had consummated his marriage he announced this with a single gunshot and went back to join the party. The wedding gown was displayed to the guests and if it was stained with blood they left money for the bride and her parents received a goat. As the party continued it was customary for the bride's family to attack the groom in revenge for their daughter’s lost virginity.

If the husband failed in his duty, people said that he had been robbed of his powers by witchcraft, but the young bride did not get away Scott free and an old woman would deflower her! Afterwards, the problem couple underwent many rituals to help them have children.

If the girl was not a virgin, the guests left immediately. A villager would climb onto a roof and profess the disgrace and in some cases the girl was sent back home to her parents because it was believed that she had brought bad luck to the whole village.

After a successful wedding night and a party, which could last three days, the girl would go to the local fountain to be unveiled.