Help! I am marrying a Bulgarian: A contemporary Bulgarian wedding walkthrough/guide.

This year I was a wedding photographer to my former classmate and friend Maya, marrying her swedish partner Mikael in the beautiful surroundings of the historical mountain village Bozhentsi in Central North Bulgaria.  After the wedding she shared with me some of her experiences and troubles in organizing a wedding from abroad. It hit me, when she mentioned translating to her future husband parts of my blog about how a typical bulgarian wedding goes, that I should promptly write several articles in English in help of those fortunate foreign folks who get to marry a person from our tremendously great and wittily ironic nation! So here it goes…

The majority of contemporary Bulgarian weddings differ to some extent from the below scenario. It is however a base from which you can get an approximate idea of how weddings in Bulgaria happen today.

The typical Bulgarian wedding is lively, cheerful, loud and emotional, with a lot of fun and dancing and considerable quantities of homemade rakia and wine, but at the same time can be very tiresome – with more than 5 different locations to attend, harrowingly long – sometimes with a total duration of more than 16+ hours, and can include some boring and inexplicable or a bit cynical rituals.

The main and most specific aspects of a Bulgarian wedding are that quite often there are not one but two ceremonies – a civil and a religious one; the party and crazy dancing can start as soon as the beginning of the reception and not just until after cake cutting (as it is the case in some Western European countries); the consumption of rakia is constantly encouraged, but giving toasts and speeches (although accepted very positively) is quite rare.

My advice when organizing your wedding is to rely less on “this is how it’s done here” and to channel your energy into the important for you things and moments of the day.

When me and my wife were getting married, our wedding day included 7 different locations combined with a garden ceremony in a 40 degree august heat at 15:00 o’clock. If we were to get married now, after me being at more than 300 weddings as a photographer and my wife being at more than 200, we would have organized the wedding at one location without any travelling – preparation in the hotel room, a ceremony in the garden, welcome drink, photos with the guests and a reception at the venue restaurant. The photoshoot would be probably on a separate day. Or maybe we would do it the same as it was – it was great fun beside all 🙂

The bulgarian wedding guide

The night before the wedding

Some bulgarian couples honour the tradition and spend the night before the wedding apart – most often each at their parents’ home, but also one might use their common home or the wedding venue apartment.

The beginning of the wedding day

Regardless of being together or at different locations, during the preparations of the bride (hair-do and make-up), the groom goes to the home of the “kumove” (two people, usually a couple or a family, who have similar role as the best man and the maid of honor in the western traditions) and then the three of them together go to get the bride. Even though the invitation for taking this major role in the bulgarian wedding is given and accepted a lot earlier, often the groom formally invites his “kum” at the wedding day, presenting him with a gift – a traditional wood carved bottle with rakia. It’s not rare when the “kum” and the “kuma” are not a couple, the groom goes to get his “kum”, while the “kuma” is usually with the bride.

In some regions in Bulgaria there are newly sprung traditions for the „kum“ and the “kuma” to prepare challenges for the groom – from making him wash a window, solve a puzzle, clean with a vacuum cleaner or hop to the closest shop for “banitsa” and “boza” (traditional bulgarian breakfast), because the “kum” “is starving”.

Giving the „kum“ the best treatment

Meanwhile the bride has her hair-do and make-up and welcomes the first guests – close relatives, friends and the bridesmaids.

The “kumove” in the Bulgarian wedding

The “kumove” in Bulgaria are most often a couple and close friends of the newlyweds, but it is also not uncommon for them to not be related. Bulgarians very rarely have brothers, sisters or other relatives as “kumove”, but that happens sometimes as well.

Some of the most known and conservative Bulgarian traditions, which are rarely honoured today are:

  • The „kumove” of the groom’s parents become ones for him as well.  If that is not possible then their children can become „kumove“.
  • The „kumove” should be married.
  • The „kumove” buy the bouquet, the bride’s shoes, the wedding glasses, the ritual bread.
  • The „kumove” should be an older family, who will become spiritual “parents” and mentors to the newlyweds.

The „kum“ exchanging crowns in the church ceremony

The role of the “kumove” in the wedding:

  • They are the two witnesses required by law at the civil marriage.
  • The two have a role at the Orthodox religious ceremony. Most often the “kuma” takes part in a small ritual with the wedding rings and the “kum” with the exchanging of the crowns. It is an absolute requirement for them to be Orthodox Christians.
  • The “kum” actively helps the groom during the ritual of “buying or stealing the bride”.
  • The “kuma” usually presents the bride with the wedding bouquet and carries out the ritual of “veiling” – she tries to put the bride’s veil on the bride’s head, who by tradition is to turn it down twice and accept it on the third attempt.
  • The “kumove” take part in the photoshoot with the newlyweds at most weddings.
  • At the reception the “kum” gives the first toast before the beginning of the dances, leads on one or more “horo” dances. Later in the evening the „kum“ and the “kuma” take part in a dancing ritual “kumova rachenitsa” during which they dance with a couple of dancers meanwhile trying to steal from them the special prizes – a ritual bread and a flamboyantly decorated roasted chicken.

Rakia

Rakia is the national alcoholic drink of most of the Balkan countries. In Bulgaria there is mass home production and most often it is produced from fermented grapes or plums. Less popular but highly venerated are apricot and quince rakia (more popular in neighbouring Serbia). The alcohol content in rakia varies from 40 to 60% alcohol by volume, which can be a little misleading.

In the past there was a popular tradition when at the birth of a child a father sets apart a special amount of rakia that is to be kept until the child’s wedding.

Whether there was some rakia set apart or not, at most Bulgarian wedding there is homemade rakia served, presented from one or the two families of the newlyweds. Thus one of the unexpected challenges of organizing a Bulgarian wedding is finding suitable quantity of identical bottles for the homemade rakia and the printing of celebratory labels. 🙂

During the wedding day the „kum“ traditionally toasts the guests with his special wooden rakia bottle.

The wooden bottle with rakia of the „kum“

Folklore “horo” dances

Folklore “horo” dances are group of close in style collective dances, popular in the Balkan countries. Most often the dancers hold hands and form a circle and everybody follows the steps of the particular “horo” dance. “Horo” dances are popular in Bulgaria and are danced at weddings, birthday parties and all kinds of formal and informal celebrations. There are many schools and dance teachers. Every region in Bulgaria has several specific styles of the “horo” dance.

The wedding DJ-s at contemporary Bulgarian weddings usually play between 5 and 10 “horo” dances for the whole evening. The most popular is “straight horo” which is quite easy to pick up and I have noticed that a lot of foreigners at weddings can dance it after a few seconds. Another important thing for “horo” dances is that exact steps are not that important – Bulgarians tend to follow the Olympic principle – it is more important to take part and if you are a guest at a Bulgarian wedding it is quite possible that they will try to pull you to the dancefloor knowing very well that you’ve never danced “horo” before.

Rarely at weddings the DJ plays very complicated “horo” dances which are usually danced by more adept guests. The other guests usually watch and applaud.

At some weddings the groom is accompanied by a folklore orchestra when he goes to get the bride. You can say that this is one of the most common cause for discussions during the wedding organization between the couple and the parents. Most often couples want to avoid this kind of loud fuss during their wedding day, but for some parents this is a question of cultural and family pride and respect for traditions.

Preparations of the bride

Traditionally the bride has her preparations (hair-do, make-up, etc.) at her parents’ home. However me and many of my colleagues recommend having those preparations done at the hotel apartment, which in most cases is the more practical and unstresfull way to go and also often we can get better images, because hotel apartments are usually more presentable. This will also save the bride’s parents the stress of having to accommodate sometimes more than 30 or 40 people in their home during a very emotional and special day for them.

The most common and also the recommended practice for the bride’s preparations is the hairstylist and makeup artist to come on location. The whole procedure usually last between 2 and 3 hours.

Buying/stealing the bride (Yes that happens.)

The groom, sometimes together with the “kum” and the “kuma” only, and sometimes accompanied by 50 friends and relatives, heads out towards the bride. In some rare cases the couple see each other for the first time at the photoshoot or at the altar. The last option is possible only during the civil ceremony or if you are having a Catholic or a Protestant religious ceremony. In the Orthodox ceremony the ritual starts upon entering the church’s doors and there is no option for the bride to enter alone.

Most couples that I photograph prefer a simpler version of this stage of the wedding day and include only a small part of the below traditions or none at all. In all cases, please pay special attention to the moment when you first see each other when planning your day – it can be a very emotional and unforgettable, or just a matter-of-fact.

The tradition of “getting the bride” stems from historical Bulgarian weddings when before the marriage the bride was still living at her parents home and so the groom literally comes and gets his bride with her trousseau for after the wedding she moves into his home.

In its full contemporary “glory” the getting of the bride is a loud event under the sounds of folklore music played live by a folklore orchestra. First there is a “horo” dance outside the place where the bride is, then the groom, the “kum” and all the other guests head towards the locked doors where they are met with different challenges from the parents, bridesmaids, etc. Most often this challenge is the ritual of “buying” the bride – the groom fills one of her shoes with money until the “guardians” are satisfied. Haggling and jokes here are key during this stage. Bulgaria has seen several hyperinflations so some Bulgarians like to joke that they prefered to be paid in “green” (meaning dollars or euro). In return some grooms try to pay with chocolate coins, Soviet rubles or bags of small change.

At most weddings the “buying” ritual lasts a few minutes after which the groom is being let in to the bride, but often has to use the help of his friends and “enforce” the door to get in. Sometimes the locked doors are more than one – if one is being guarded by the bridesmaids, then at the second door he may meet the siblings and at a third door – the parents. The obstacles for the groom don’t always involve purchase. There were cases when he was asked specific questions, or being made to consume weird foods or drinks…or simply having to arm wrestle the bride’s brother.

At some weddings the bride is not behind the last locked door. She has hidden somewhere and the groom has to find her. After he finds her, there is another “obstacle” – she has lost her shoe. In these cases the groom looks for the shoe with guidances of “hot” and “cold” until he finds it and puts in on his bride’s foot. The bride then “complains” that her shoe is big so the groom has to line it with money.

After that follows the decoration with little flower boutonnières, which is usually done by the bride (but she may be aided by bridesmaids) as well as toast with all guests.

There is a Bulgarian tradition for the bride to be accompanied by the „kum“ and not by the groom. This sometimes continues during the whole day, including during the “welcoming” part at the wedding reception. This has always puzzled me as a photographer as on many photos the bride and groom are apart, so my advice is for the bride to be accompanied by her father when leaving her parents’ home and by the groom for the rest of the day.

At weddings many Bulgarians follow the tradition of welcoming dear guests with ritual bread with salt and honey and sending them off with pouring out water. Usually the mother of the bride pours out some water in front of the couple when they leave the family home – this small ritual signifies wishes for “smooth sailing”.

Civil marriage ceremony

  • When not in the wedding venue, the civil ceremony usually takes place in one of the town ritual halls. The ceremony lasts between 10 and 20 minutes and includes:
  • A lyrical address from the civil clerk;
  • Questions towards the newlyweds, do they want to marry. The bulgarian answer for “yes” is “da”;
  • Signing the protocol;
  • Asking the witnesses whether the marriage is entered upon by free will;
  • Exchanging of wedding rings/bands;
  • First kiss;
  • Champagne toast for the newlywed couple;

During the civil ceremony two traditions may take place. Just after signing the documents the newlyweds may try to step on the other’s foot – whoever succeeds first will be in command of the family. The second tradition is drinking the champagne toast with crossed arms.

“Gorchivo!”

You will notice that from the moment of signing the civil marriage documents the guests start occasionally to yell “Gorchivo!” during the following part of the wedding. “Gorchivo” means “bitter” – and that is a signal that the newlyweds should sweeten the moment with a kiss. At some point it gets a bit lame.

After the ceremony the newlyweds have to receive congratulations from every single guest of wedding.

Almost everywhere in Bulgaria there is an option to arrange against a slightly higher fee to legally sign the civil marriage documents outside the City Hall – for example at the garden of your chosen wedding venue.

Having the civil ceremony on location at a your venue instead of in the ritual city hall is one of the most common and insistent recommendations that me and most of my colleagues wedding photographers and cinematographers give. Most ritual halls are with run-down in exterior and interior and the access most of the times is arduous due to the common lack of parking spaces. On popular wedding dates it is usual for three or four wedding parties to bump into each other around the wedding hall and this generates some “assembly line” feeling. Also there is a superstition that a bride should not see another and sometimes part of the wedding guests go to long extents to “hide” the bride, covering her with their bodies and jackets. The atmosphere and style are either that of the communist era from 30 years ago or that of an dull office space. Often there are uninvited gipsy orchestras at the exit, beggars and a paparazzi photographer who takes your photo as you come out of the hall and later in the evening sneaks in the restaurant and starts selling the printed photos around the guest tables.

The exit of Triaditsa ritual hall

The exit of Triaditsa ritual hall.

Regrettably it is our capital Sofia that is the only bulgarian municipality that does not allow civil marriage ceremonies “off-location”. As a result a lot of couples have the legal civil ceremony the day before their wedding and on their wedding day they have faux ceremony for the guests which replicates to some extent the civil ceremony. There is a good solution to this, which is to request a civil clerk from a neighbouring municipality – this option is completely legal at this moment.

Another option to check is to have the marriage concluded in the home country of the non-bulgarian partner, thus avoiding possible difficulties regarding required documents in Bulgaria, which was a major issue for several international couples I have been wedding photographer to.

Religious ceremony/ Church marriage

The Christian Orthodox Church does not “like” any of the other Christian denominations and as a result only Orthodox Christians can have a religious ceremony or be “kumove” at one.

The religious ceremony starts upon entering the church with prayer reading from the priest and the placing of the wedding rings, after which the “kuma” has to exchange them 3 times. After that the newlyweds are entered in front of the ritual table where more prayers are read, ritual crowns are placed on their heads, which in his part the „kum“ exchanges 3 times. Main accent of the ceremony is the reading from the Gospel of John – “The wedding at Cana” (John 2:1-8) After that the newlyweds are led around the ritual table 3 times, drink 3 times each from a glass of red wine and then the ceremony ends with some advisory words from the priest.

Church ceremony

Church ceremony

Photoshoot and photos with the guests

After the civil and/or the religious ceremonies there are usually photographs taken with the family members and the other guests by couples, families or groups.

The newlyweds go on a separate special wedding photoshoot which lasts about an hour and usually takes place before/after before or after the ceremonies.

Wedding reception

When the guests are already seated, the DJ announces the entrance of „the newest family in Bulgaria“. On the dancefloor there is a white cloth decorated with flowers, wheat, small coins and a small metal pot with a bit of water, a red and a white flowers inside which is located at the end of the cloth.

Different DJ-s/hosts have different repertoire and in some cases the ritual of “welcoming” the can be accompanied by more traditions – like lighting of a “family flame”, walking under coloured ribbons held by the bridesmaids and groomsmen. It is advisable to discuss all this with the host/DJ in advance so you’re not surprised on the day.

Kicking the brass pot

Kicking the brass pot

The newlyweds and the “kumove” are welcomed by both mothers – the mother of the bride holds a round ritual bread from which the mother of the groom under the instructions of the DJ/host breaks small pieces of bread and gives them to the newlyweds twice – once the pieces have salt on them – to symbolize the “salty” moments in life and after the salt follows honey.

Curious fact to mention is the richness of the Bulgarian language regarding separate words for addressing in-laws.
The mother and father of the bride are “tashta” and “tast” to the groom;
The mother and father of the groom are “svekarva” and “svekar” to the bride;
The groom is “zet” to his wife’s parents and she is a “snaha” for his.
The husband’s brother is “dever” to the wife;
The wife’s brother is “shurey” to the husband;
The wife’s sister is “baldaza” to the husband and his sister will be “zalva” to his wife.

Glasses with champagne are presented to the newlyweds and the “kumove”. After toasting and drinking them, the DJ/host then asks the „kum“ about the taste of the champagne to which he is supposed to answer “Gorchivo!”.

The DJ/host explains the tradition of kicking the small metal pot – the water inside symbolizes “smooth sailing” in their married life, and judging by the colour of the first flower that fall from the pot, one would predict the gender of the couple’s first child – white for a boy and red for a girl.

After the “welcoming” ritual the couple takes their places at their table and usually have 10-15 minutes before the next point on the program.

Toast of the „kum“

It is utter most obligatory and it often stresses out to great extents the “kum”. I have heard stories of people that haven’t slept for weeks and have been a witness to a person nervously smoking two cigarettes at once and refusing to go in restaurant. When the „kum“ and the “kuma” are not a couple, she might give a toast as well. Toasts given by the newlywed couple or their parents are a rare exception, but are always answered with a lot of positive emotions and applause by the guests.

Toast of the "kum"

Toast of the „kum“

A tricky moment at international weddings is the interpretation of speeches. My experience is that simultaneous interpretation kills all jokes and humour in speeches, so don’t do it. Let the speeches be translated beforehand and let someone read the translation after they are said.

First dance

The toast of the „kum“ is followed by the first dance of the couple, which is to open the dancefloor.

The second song is usually goes for the couple’s parents. At a lot of weddings the newlyweds don’t leave their parents alone on the dancefloor – the groom invites his mother, the bride her father; after some time the couples exchange partners. The “family” dance can be done in a few variations and can be preliminary agreed upon so brothers, sisters and other close family members can take part.

After the first wedding dance and the “family” dance, the DJ usually plays a “horo” and invites all guests to the dancefloor.

Breaking of the ritual wedding bread

Around 1:30-2 hours after the start of the evening and the dances, when the main dish is served, the newlyweds stand with their backs against each other and the „kum“ places the ritual bread above their heads. In some rare cases the newlyweds face each other, which I think is the better option for this ritual. The traditions says that however breaks the bigger part of the bread he will take command in the new family. Another superstition says that he will be the one who brings money in the family.

Breaking the bread

Breaking the bread

Congratulations from the guests and reception of the wedding presents

Halfway through reception, just after the bread breaking, the newlyweds go around to toast their guests and accept well-wishes and presents. During this time the DJ plays background music and there are no dances. This pause does not have a good effect on the mood and with weddings that have more than 100 guests, it can take for the newlyweds more than an hour to go around all the tables.

A second options for accepting well-wishes and presents is right before starting the reception, as this can be combined with a welcome drink. Me and a lot of my colleagues recommend this option as a much more practical scenario.

Some couples set a decorated corner where the guests can leave their presents. However this practice has not been very successful at bulgarian weddings (or at least the ones I have been photographer to) as most guests prefer to hand their presents personally and do so at every convenient or not so convenient moment during the reception.

Here is a list of some wedding traditions, rituals and games that sometimes take place during a Bulgarian wedding:

  • “Rachenisa” – A folklore dance-off I have already mentioned above.
  • “The bride’s horo” – a horo dance lead by the bride. Everyone who wants to dance at the horo must put a small amount of money in a special basket and then goes at the end of the horo. The last person on the horo holds the wedding bouquet. When the music stops and judging by the gender of the last person holding bouquet at the horo one can tell the gender of the couple’s future child. So how about that for a videozone?
  • The game with shoes – The newlyweds sit on two chairs with their backs against each other. They take their shoes off holding one shoe of each pair in their hands. Then the DJ asks preliminary prepared questions like “Who was the one who said “I love you” first?” or “Who snores louder?” to which the newlyweds answer by lifting the corresponding shoe.

An invariable part of contemporary Bulgarian wedding and a final element of the formal part of the scenario have become throwing of the bouquet, tossing the garter and cutting the wedding cake.

Wedding cake eating

Wedding cake eating

Lately it has become very popular to give pieces of the wedding cake to couples who are not yet married with wink suggestion from the newlyweds to follow their steps.

At international weddings we often witness mixture of traditions – bulgarian and foreign and I think it is always great fun for everybody to watch and participate, so don’t hesitate to make your wedding unique and to underline your personality and national traditions.


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