Polish wedding season is upon us. More and more foreigners are marrying Poles or getting invited to Polish friend’s weddings and there are things these people need to know. In this definitive survival guide to Polish weddings I will cover every potential pitfall, misunderstanding and health risk I’ve uncovered in my long career of attending Polish weddings. Comparisons are made with British or Anglo-American weddings, the rest of you will have to wing it.
1. Read your invitation carefully
In Poland it is quite possible to be invited to the wedding but not the wedding party. In fact it’s more common to be invited to the ceremony than to the party. I once bumped into an English friend of mine dressed up in his finest and white-faced with shock.
Me: You look like you found a penny and lost a pound.
Friend: I went to a wedding.
Me: You’re back early, it’s only half five!
Friend: No, I mean I went to a wedding. Just a wedding.
Me: You mean…
Friend: Yes. No party. Just a wedding.
Me: My god…
Friend: Buy me a beer, I can’t feel my arms.
Polish wedding invitations can contain unwelcome surprises.
Poles are still attached to the quaint notion that the union of two people in holy matrimony is a significant event that people might want to witness rather than a slightly tedious prelude to a booze up. Shocking I know, but there it is. If your invitation mentions “ślub” that’s the tedious prelude part. If it mentions “ślub” and “wesele” put on your best drinking shoes and pat yourself on the back, you’re going to a party.
2. The missing groom
In a British wedding ceremony the groom arrives at the church first and waits at the altar with his best man for the bride to be escorted down the aisle by her father or nearest equivalent. It’s a tradition that allows for all kinds of hilarious church-based shenanigans such as the groom fainting from stress or the best man passing out from alcohol poisoning. It’s also frequently used as a dramatic device in the kind of movies where brides decide not to turn up at the last minute. In Poland the bride and groom arrive at the church at the same time and walk down the aisle together, sometimes in leg irons. If you’re waiting in the church and notice the groom is missing don’t get excited, he’s coming. Expectations of a thrilling ‘jilted-at-the-altar’ scenario are unlikely to be met.
3. Polish best man – the world’s easiest job
Expectations of the best man at a Polish wedding are not high. The ability to walk in a more-or-less straight line and hold some envelopes are sufficient qualifications. Polish best men do practically nothing. He walks behind the bride and groom down the aisle along with the bridesmaid and then sits down. That’s pretty much it. Best men are often also witnesses, but not always. In a British wedding it is the responsibility of the best man to bring the ring (note, only one ring) and hand it over at the appropriate moment, another tradition that provides limitless opportunities for humor. Not so in the Polish service – the rings are already there in a holy cubby hole of some kind.
If you’re ever asked to be best man at a Polish wedding do not hesitate. No responsibilities, no speeches (more on this later), a definite invitation to the party and a guaranteed woman to go with. You can’t lose.
4. Standing, kneeling and sitting
The Catholic wedding service is essentially a mass with some additional messing about with rings and microphones. As with all masses there is a certain amount of standing up, sitting down, and random kneeling to be endured. If you’re not used to this sort of thing it’s usually easy to just follow the crowd. At weddings, however, things can get a little tricky.
Weddings, by their very nature, bring together two families. These days it’s quite common for these families to come from different places, unless we’re talking a real old-style keep-it-in-the-village affair. The surprising thing about Catholicism is that it isn’t nearly as standardized as the uninitiated might expect. Congregations from different parts of the country, or even neighboring villages, tend to do things slightly differently. The results can be hilarious – half the congregation suddenly kneel down while the other half are looking forward to a good couple of minutes more seat time, or every third person unexpectedly stands up leaving the remainder bouncing uncertainly. It’s the ultimate Polish nightmare – appear to be less devout and schooled than the visitors or do what has been drummed into you since the age of four by your local priest. Poles have been known to spontaneously ignite from stress at these moments.
5. The disappearing bride and groom
You’ve survived the sitting, standing and kneeling business. Everything seems to be over and the newlywed couple are advancing back up the aisle towards the doors. You’re already loosening your belt in anticipation of the coming revelries when suddenly the bride and groom take a sharp left turn and disappear into some hitherto unnoticed wing of the church. What to do? Is there some special exit for newlyweds? Is something else tedious and detrimental to your buttocks going on? Panic not. More than likely they’ve nipped into a side chapel or nook to pay their respects to the local holy painting or finger bone of Saint Tibulus. They wont be long.
Holy pictures. There’s usually one around somewhere.
6. Throwing money around and sealed brown envelopes
On exiting the church the happy couple are traditionally showered with handfuls of loose change. They are then expected to pick it all up. Starting out on married life groveling around on the pavement for pennies like bums is, apparently, lucky. If you ever find yourself in this position I suggest bringing an umbrella which you can smoothly invert to catch the bulk of the incoming coinage.
Heavy metal objects of little value are traditionally thrown at Polish people who get married.
Immediately following this potentially painful and humiliating indoctrination into marital finances everybody lines up to pay their respects to the couple and hand them wads of cash. Three kisses on the cheek and flowers for the bride, a handshake and an envelope full of money to the groom. I’m told the going rate is about 200 zloty. The bride hands her flowers to her bridesmaid, who needs to have forearms like tree trunks, and the groom hands the envelopes full of money to the best man, who needs to have moderately large pockets (I told you this job was easy).
7. The salt and the bread
Off to the party, which might be in a wedding hall, a restaurant, or somebody’s back garden. On arrival everybody gets a drink and the bride and groom get salt and bread. Again, if you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t panic – it’s just symbolic, it doesn’t mean you’re only getting salt and bread for the rest of the evening. One or other of the parents who’s job it is to provide the bread and salt may make a short speech and start blubbing at this point.
A very fancy bread-and-salt thing. Usually it’s just bread and, well, salt.
8. Songs, songs, songs
Immediately following the salt and the bread business all Poles in the vicinity will break into song. The song is known as “Sto lat” (“100 years”) and is the same song you will hear sung at birthday parties, presidential inaugurations and, in extreme cases, the opening of a tin of sardines. Here are the words — you’re going to hear them a lot in the next few hours:
Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje/żyją, żyje/żyją nam.
Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje/żyją, żyje/żyją nam,
Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz, niech żyje/żyją, żyje/żyją nam,
Niech żyje/żyją nam!
which translates roughly into English as:
A hundred years, a hundred years,
We want him/her/them to live.
A hundred years, a hundred years,
We want him/her/them to live,
Once again, once again, we want him/her/them to live,
We want him/her/them to live.
9. First dinner, first dance
Once the singing has died down everybody sits down to the first meal. Note my use of the word ‘first’ here. There may be additional singing in the form of traditional demands for the bride and groom to kiss like alien face-huggers, but there’s nothing important going on there that you need to worry about. Immediately following the first meal the newlyweds are invited to embarrass themselves horribly by performing the first dance.
10. A lot more dinners
I often advise people going to Polish weddings to beware of the amount of food they will be required to consume. “There will be a lot of food” I say “I mean, really a lot.” “Oh good” they say. I shake my head and hold my tongue. A few days later I see them again and they say “Why didn’t you tell us there would be so much!” “I did!” I say “I tried to warn you.” “My god” they say with the horror of recollection in their eyes “I didn’t know there was that much food…”
Polish food. You’re going to be seeing a lot of this kind of thing.
This is how it works. Immediately after the first toast you will sit down to an excellent meal of something roasted, with vegetables and potatoes and a side salad preceded by soup. You will eat this and then help yourself to the various cakes, cold meats, breads etc. scattered liberally about the table. At this point you will be completely stuffed and saying to yourself “Hey, that guy was right, there really was a lot of food, but I could handle it.” You will probably be quite satisfied with yourself and think me a moaning minnie with the food handling capacity of a small rodent. About an hour later the waiters will be bearing down on you with exactly the same thing all over again. An hour after that they will be back again. By now you’ll be feeling the fear. Fortunately there are only three or four more courses to go, each one the size of a hearty Sunday dinner. And then cake.
Do not attempt to eat everything served to you. You will die. You have to regard the food as symbolic. It’s a symbol of wealth and plenty, an overwhelming feast for the happy event, it’s not an actual meal.
11. The vodka situation
Vodka is a big deal at Polish weddings. Talk of who is going to buy the vodka and where they are going to get it begins at least six months before people start considering less significant details such as wedding dresses or who to marry. Presumably there was a time when vodka was in short supply or had to be manufactured in the woods because, as far as I can see, the entire problem can me solved in a ten minute trip to the local supermarket. However, I digress.
Assuming the vodka is there and, to be honest, the wedding would have been canceled if it wasn’t there are a few things you should know. Vodka is only drunk collectively. Glasses are filled, somebody proposes a toast, vodka is drunk, and glasses are refilled in readiness for the next toast. There’s no casual solitary sipping. It’s all or nothing every time. Sometimes it will be a special wedding vodka prepared according to a traditional recipe known only to 84-year-old uncle Bogdan. These are often sweet and pleasant tasting but can still kill an elephant at 20 paces. Do not be tempted to fill in the time between toasts with a beer or a glass of wine, that way lies very messy but dimly recalled madness.
Making the wedding vodka. Legal requirements may or may not be observed. (photo by this guy)
12. Throwing bouquets and ties
The throwing of the bouquet will be familiar to British readers and it has the same function at a Polish wedding, except that it takes place at the party and not outside the church. The difference at a Polish wedding is that it is taken much more seriously. In the half an hour before the tossing of the bouquet is due you’ll notice a gradual but complete evacuation of the building by all unmarried females over the age of about 24. To be 25 or older and still in that circle around the bride is a powerful shame.
Unlike men at British weddings Polish men also get the chance to make utter fools of themselves scrambling after discarded clothing. The groom’s tie is the sought after item in this case. By this time of the night any male who is still able to stand, regardless of age, is considered a good catch.
13. Proper dancing
Dancing is also a big deal a Polish weddings. It’s the women’s vodka. The first time I went to a Polish wedding my girlfriend said “You know there will be dancing, don’t you?” “Well yes” I said “that’s normal.” I had in mind the vague individual flailing around that every self-respecting Brit regards as dancing. Not so. Proper dancing is expected. In pairs, with feet and everything. Dancing schools make a killing in Poland.
Correct kind of dancing.
Incorrect kind of dancing.
14. Midnight cake
The cake is cut and distributed to the groaning overstuffed guests at midnight. Or at some other random time. Then they wheel in an entire roasted cow just in case anybody is feeling peckish. Knocking off time will probably be sometime around 3 or 4 in the morning.
A cow. You may be required to eat one… a whole one.
15. The two-day wedding
It is true that Polish weddings sometimes go on for two days. The second day is known as “poprawiny” and you’re most likely to come across it at a traditional village affair. At first the idea of a party that goes on for two days sounds quite appealing to the average Brit. By the fifth course of the first night the idea becomes less attractive. The first time I went to a two-day wedding I imagined a Bacchanalian blow-out that would literally go on for 48 hours. In fact the truth is less terrifying. On the first night everybody goes home in the early hours of the morning, sleeps for 10 hours, then comes back and does the whole thing all over again minus the tedious mucking about in church.
A guest makes his way to the second day of a Polish wedding.
The second night is traditionally much more relaxed than the first. It’s a no-holds-barred party to celebrate the fact that the previous night’s party went well, or to rectify the fact if it didn’t. Boys are sorted from men.
And let us know how it went.