Wedding

A very characteristic feature of Estonian wedding customs was the passivity of the bride and the groom. Although they were the most important people of the wedding, they did not do very much; things were done for them, both in making the proposal and during the wedding. During the proposal-making the speaking was done by the best man – an older married man, usually a relative of the groom. Men usually rode to the bride's home on horseback; sometimes the horse was a stallion wearing special adornments. This had to be done on either Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday evening during the new moon. The groom and his friends had to bring along some gifts, in older times a small keg of beer and later some strong alcoholic drink. The latter had to be of red colour and very sweet. The proposal was made in a roundabout way and the best man had to be very good with words. When the talking was done the bottle was put on the table and if the bride's father drank from it then the answer was affirmative. Giving presents to the bride was a relic from the times when wives were bought. The most common presents were an apron, a silk scarf, or a knife (later a ring) for the bride, a coif or an apron for the bride's mother, a cap or a pipe for the father and scarves for sisters and brothers. Even as late as the 19th century the groom had to pay a bridewealth, the sum of which depended on the groom's financial situation; this sum was always paid in silver. If the wedding was called off because of the bride then the gifts and money had to be returned; if the wedding was called off because of the groom then the gifts were regarded as compensation to the bride's family.

In the old days there did not have to be a connection between the wedding ceremony and the wedding party. Church weddings were not considered very important for quite a long time (until the mid-19th century at least). Generally, the wedding party was regarded as the official beginning of the marriage and the bride became the wife at the moment her hair was covered with a coif. Usually the wedding ceremony took place after the wedding party, sometimes together with the christening of the first-borne child. A wedding ceremony was nevertheless compulsory because this gave the relationship legal approval.

The most common time to have a wedding was in late autumn or in winter (until February). In autumn the farms were at their wealthiest and there were no tasks requiring immediate attention. One would never have the wedding during the old moon. It was believed that the new moon promoted fertility, and brought good luck and good health. If the marriage proposal was made during the new moon, the wife would remain young for a long time; if the proposal was made during the old moon then she would become old and wrinkled very quickly.

A wedding usually followed a certain order. In the morning of the first day of the wedding or the previous evening the bridegroom’s guests (saajarahvas) gathered at his place, and the bride’s people (saunjarahvas) at hers. The first lot then turned up at the bride’s place to claim the bride and look for her. The bride left her parents’ house in the evening of the first wedding day or in the morning of the second day. This was preceded by whisking the bride in the sauna steam room with leafy birch twigs, and decorating her. The bride was then taken to the groom’s house where she was welcomed and shown around.

On the second day, saunjarahvas arrived at the groom’s house with the dowry chest. They demanded to see the bride and looked for her. The central rite of a wedding party also took place on the second day – capping the bride. The headdress of a married woman was placed on her head, and the bride became a young married woman. This ceremony usually took place in a secluded room like a the barn or a sauna, with only the most important people present. The capping was normally followed by the bride putting on an apron, an obligatory piece of garment for a married woman.

This was in its turn followed by ‘patching the apron’, i.e. gathering money for the bride who walked around and the wedding guests threw money into her apron. Next came dancing with the bride that was at first probably a part of an ancient fertility rite: after capping and ‘patching the apron’, a relative of the bridegroom or in more recent times, the groom himself, took the bride to the dance floor. Other wedding guests then followed suit. In the evening of the second day, the newlyweds were ceremoniously taken to bed.

Presents to the guests were distributed on the third day. Initially this had both a magical and social purpose – to establish good relations with the future husband and his relatives. In some places, even cattle received presents from their new mistress. The belts and ribbons tied to a cow’s horns later belonged to the bridegroom’s mother. That day additional money was collected in the course of various customs and games. The bride’s people left the groom’s house late that evening.

The wedding party sometimes continued into the fourth day, now held in the two houses separately. During the last days of the wedding, people paid one another visits, with newlyweds also participating; they played games and practical jokes and danced.

There was also a traditional ending to the wedding. A very common way of letting the people know that the wedding was over was to serve a certain dish, usually cabbages or cabbage soup. Often the end of the wedding was signified by the lack of meat and some other signs, such as knocking on the outside walls of the house, for example. If the guests still could not take the hint then the young wife took a spinning wheel to the middle of the room and started spinning.

Details about this article