Almost every girl dreams of her perfect wedding, and for most of them that dream includes a bright sunny day. It’s no wonder then that most weddings take part in the beautiful spring and summer days. In fact, this tradition is so prevalent in Croatia I have begun marking the arrival of spring not by the calendar or the weather, but by the honking processions of cars on the weekends, and the sounds of traditional Croatian music from the most unlikely places. As I was getting ready to attend a wedding myself this weekend my attention was drawn to the park my balcony overlooks. A large catering van was parked next to it and I could see tables and a tent set up in the park itself, just as it would have been on a village green.
About 10 minutes later, the sounds of singing drew me out again, to see a group of men sing a wooing song to call the bride out. As a traditional tamburica band joined them and the bride finally came out dancing, the windows all around were dotted with heads as curious as mine and I started thinking about the most unusual and quirky wedding customs in the area.
The wooing of the bride
The bride, being the incredibly shy, doe-eyed creature she surely is in this modern day and age, is reluctant to step out of her family home and step into adult life. She must be called, wooed and coaxed out of the house by a gang of mildly or not so mildly inebriated younger male members of the wedding party (best men, groomsmen, and family). At some point the traditional band joins in the wooing.
The bride switch
If the bride proves to be even more reluctant than previously thought, or the wedding day is to be as fairy-tale like as possible, a switch is made, and someone else is sent out instead of the bride, posing as her. Dressed in something resembling a wedding dress and wearing a thick veil, he or she offers to go with the groom. A certain amount of witty wordplay and barter it then expected, though how witty it is depends largely on how the next person on our list was generous with the spirits.
Japica Domacin – The wedding host/master of ceremonies
Not necessarily the head of the household or the best man, Japica Domacin (papa host) performs various ceremonial and traditional duties such as making sure everyone has a full glass, giving witty speeches, and engaging in traditional well-wishing and fertility customs such as making the bride throw the apple over the house for good luck. After that everyone follows…
Barjaktar- The flag bearer
The logic behind the man waving a giant flag at the head of the procession seems to be half directing the procession in the right direction, and half announcing to everyone that this queue of people is on their way to a wedding. As one of the most important things at a traditional wedding seems to be that everyone has enough to drink a good time, he also carries with him a bottle of some spirit or another in every pocket, just in case Japica missed someone.
The car procession
Imagine a long line of cars decorated with balloons and bows, with the car in the front having a man half leaning out and waving a giant national flag, the entire procession moving at a snail’s pace, blocking off entire intersections and everyone honking very, very loudly. That is pretty much it. No evil spirits can stand to be near so much noise and commotion, so the marriage is sure to be off to a good start! But the procession has one more vital component.
As the procession meanders through the settlement of choice on their way to the church or registrar’s office, they have to stop at the houses of key family members, even if it means driving in circles. Aunts and uncles and grandparents will wait for the procession to stop by the house where the head of the household will offer something to the head of the procession, and the female members of the family will carry trays full of fruit spirits (and in some more unusual households juice) for the rest of the guests in their cars. After that they will probably join the procession themselves.
The traditional song repertoire
After the wedding ceremony comes the time to head to the venue, to eat, drink and be merry. This of course, involves the band (not necessarily the same one that wooed the bride, mind you) playing a repertoire of traditional wedding songs. While these may differ from region to region, and while the number of more modern songs may vary, all express sorrow over the loss of their (now married) children, ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends, love songs over sad brides, songs about mothers and at some point, even about the beauty of the homeland and some national flora. Expect tears, both in songs and in eyes.
Tipping the musicians
There is no better way of expressing your appreciation for music that touches your heart than by sticking large bills in harmonicas, between guitar or tamburica strings, or in some cases, on the musicians themselves while they are still playing. The guests were known to be so touched at times that they came to the next day realizing that not only was their wallet empty, but that they have given away their grandfather’s watch as well.
The 3 AM gulash
If there is anything that helps after a day and night of drinking, it’s being served something solid and nourishing in the early hours of the night. In some areas it’s gulash, in some sarma (rolled cabbage stuffed with mince and rice), and in some fish stews, but they have one thing in common- they help the guests find their legs again, and gently suggest that the night is coming to an end. Coffee is often served alongside it.
Beli Obed – White Lunch
This is the first meal the new bride cooks for the family and best man/ maid of honor after the honeymoon. It is always a Sunday lunch. These days the bride rarely cooks herself and prefers to take them all to a restaurant, but in some more traditional areas the custom still survives as a way for the bride to display her skill and promise she will run a good household.