Russian weddings: extreme shows

The traditional Russian wedding season runs from just after Orthodox Easter through the end of summer. This means that every Saturday morning the typical resident of the typical apartment building must be prepared to be woken by the protracted honking of shrill horns

Once the bleary-eyed neighbors are all leaning out of their windows (that is, once the honking has produced the desired effect), it turns out, fortunately, that there is no fire and no air raid, only a groom come to fetch his bride. What do all the other people living in the bride's building have to do with it? Why must they be alerted to the happy event? No one ever thinks to ask. This is a wedding, so everyone should be celebrating.

A Russian wedding is a complicated and confused ritual that makes no sense to an outsider. It is a bizarre combination of ancient Slavic rites and the latest "New Russian" traditions. As a result, the event meant to symbolize the greatest happiness on earth has become a serious ordeal for many of the "happy couples". All their timid attempts to forego the extravagant affair are firmly rebuffed by parents whose standard argument verges on blackmail: "Otherwise you won't be happy together."

In Russia, weddings tend to be done on a grand scale. People who scrimp and save ordinarily will spend their last kopeck when a son or daughter marries. They will borrow money from friends and relatives, they will take out long-term loans. All this for the sake of one day. But what a day! A day to remember for the rest of their lives. If only the memories are good.

And so, a cavalcade of several cars, honking their dissonant horns pulls up in front of the bride's building. There must be several cars - otherwise it's not a wedding. Best of all is when the first is a white stretch limousine decorated with ribbons and a pair of oversized wedding rings on the roof. The tradition of adorning the wedding procession with ribbons and flowers evidently goes back to antiquity. In Soviet times, the hood of the first car was also fitted out with a large doll. In the provinces, this is still done.

Now that the groom has arrived, he must collect his bride. Or, rather, "ransom" her. This is not so easily done. The groom must answer all sorts of questions about his betrothed. Who did she dream of being as a child? What was the name of her favorite dog? And so on. If the groom does not know the correct answer, he must buy his way out with money, candy or verses that he has written about his beloved. The business of ransoming the bride can take a fairly long time which is why the wedding party arrives so early.

After the marriage has been registered at the local registry, the next ritual involves driving around the town to see particular sights and being photographed in front of them. Every town or city has its standard sights for newlyweds. In Moscow, for instance, they are Red Square, Victory Park and Sparrow Hills. On Saturdays, the brides and grooms at these places outnumber ordinary passersby.

Seeing these various sights (and being seen at them) takes quite a while so it's hardly surprising that when the wedding party and guests finally arrive at the banquet hall, they are exhausted and famished. You would think that now they might be allowed to rest and eat in peace. But no. First the bride and groom must take turns taking bites out of a round loaf of bread (whoever bites off more will be the head of the family). Then the real torture begins. Every five or ten minutes one of the guests will begin chanting: "Bit-ter! Bit-ter!" The rest of the guests will join in. This is not a sign of displeasure at the food: it is a signal, after which bride and groom must stand up and kiss each other. A peck on the cheek will not do. The gimlet-eyed guests will see to it that these ritual kisses are the real thing. This is another tradition that dates back to ancient times. True, it has come down to us in a somewhat distorted form. Originally, the bride would go around to all the guests with a tray filled with little glasses of vodka. The guests would take the glasses in turn and say "bitter", thereby confirming that the glasses contained vodka and not water. Then they would kiss the bride. Over time the need to kiss all the guests fell away. In the contemporary version, the guests all shout "Bitter!", the bride and groom kiss and then everyone goes back to drinking and eating. Bear in mind that over the course of the banquet (the banquet usually goes on into the wee hours) this ritual will be repeated dozens of times. By the end, many of the guests are ready to collapse, some from exhaustion, others from too much food or drink, still others from too much dancing. Guests are now allowed a short respite for sleep and then it's back to the rigors of celebration since a Russian wedding is feted for at least two and even three days.

These days, theme weddings are the fashion. A James Bond-style wedding (evidently with car chases and gunfire) or a Hollywood-style wedding (complete with red carpet and Oscars awarded for special merits) or a Pirate-style wedding (in which the bride is kidnapped and the wedding limousine must be boarded). There are also extreme weddings where the newlyweds parachute out of a plane or go deep-sea diving.

Then again, any Russian wedding is an extreme experience that one must simply endure. In all fairness, this sort of thing only happens once in a person's life. No matter how many times he or she remarries. Because once is more than enough.

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