Never heard of a baby engagement or bride purchase? It’s high time you delved into the era when brides were far from princesses and when wedding guests wore more weapons than jewelry. The Balkan region abounds in wedding traditions that are fading under the influence of modern customs. Society is changing irrevocably and the modern era is cutting ties with national customs, labeling them as repetitive, stereotypical and anachronistic. However, the latest wedding trends and social media gave rise to more identical weddings all over the world than any old-fashioned custom. The era of artificial smoke and predictable music playlists calls for a reminder of the old traditions related to engagement, wedding planning and the ceremony itself.
Typically, girls older than 12 and boys older than 14 were eligible for marriage, although there were certain exceptions to this rule in Montenegro. Unexceptionally, the oldest girl in the family had to get married first. Proposing marriage to younger sisters while the oldest one is still unmarried was considered a great shame to a family as it meant that the oldest girl is not good or (physically and mentally) healthy enough.
Long before diamond rings and 101-rose bouquets, an engagement had nothing to do with newlyweds. Namely, in the entire region of Serbia and Montenegro, engagement was purely a parental decision. Marriage was considered an excellent opportunity for good neighbor relations or an alliance of powers and impact. For that reason, parents used to decide if their children are compatible. In some parts of Montenegro, if fathers wanted to strengthen their friendship and join the local influences, they would even engage their babies.
The official engagement used to be held after the parental agreement. This was an occasion when the young couple met and their families exchanged gifts and pleasantries. In some parts of Montenegro, the family would “hide” the bride from the groom until the wedding day, while in northern Serbia, the couple would meet a year before the wedding for the first time and then a few more times before the wedding. Similarly, marital proposal was far from a private occasion for those that were not engaged in childhood. Usually, the men from the groom’s family would visit the girl’s father and he would show them the girl whose turn it was to marry. The girl’s father would ask the young man if he liked the girl, and if the answer was positive, the groom-to-be had to place a present for the girl on the table. The father would then ask his daughter if she liked the young man and if she did, she could accept the gift. Daughters would rarely disobey the fathers’ decision at that time. In other parts of Serbia, the girl’s father would be offered a bottle of brandy along with the marital proposal — taking a sip indicated the acceptance of the proposal, while the refusal of the drink was considered a rejection of the marital proposal as well.
Even now, wedding traditions in the Balkans include a lot of gift-giving. At an engagement, for instance, the bride-to-be and other women in her family used to receive apples, soaps, fans and hair pins while the groom and male members of his family would get shirts, socks, towels, food and drinks. Besides presents, the bride would certainly get a ring. Interestingly, in some Montenegrin villages there were four or six standardized stone rings that people could rent for the engagement and return after the wedding. Furthermore, the financial aspect of marriages was as important as the quality and diversity of gifts. The groom’s parents had a right to offer money for a girl and the girl’s parents could ask for more or refuse the proposal if they believed there could be a better offer. On the other hand, the more money a bride could bring to her new family, the better her marriage prospects were. In some areas of Serbia and Montenegro there were even unwritten price lists indicating how much money should be offered for the bride and how much the bride should bring. In the 19th century in Serbia, with the aim of regulating marital practices, Đorđe Petrović proscribed that no one could offer or ask for more than one golden coin for a girl, which improved the marriage prospects of the poor.
Wedding planning used to start once the couple was officially engaged. The preparation practices varied between the bride and groom. The bride-to-be and her friends would spend months sewing and embroidering clothes, linen, towels and different gifts for the new family. Wedding invitations, for example, were exclusively oral in the northern parts of Serbia. The members of the bride’s family would gather, sing, drink, and together visit all the households whose members should attend the wedding.
The groom’s preparations were more time-saving. In Montenegro, the national flag was appreciated and adorned as one of the guests. Several days before the wedding, five or seven of the groom's friends would bring the flag from the church and place it on the roof or other prominent position on the groom’s house. After the raising of the flag, the groom’s family celebrates, sings and toasts. Throughout the wedding, the flag must be adorned, properly held and protected. If the flag was damaged or if the bride’s family overtook it, the groom’s family would be seriously disgraced and ashamed. The code of chivalry and honor was of the utmost importance in Montenegro. The men were proud of their weapons and wore them as accessories on special occasions. The groom’s fully armed guests would gather and mark the beginning of the ceremony with three cannonades. After the cannonade, the pageant of guests would proceed to bring the bride, sometimes on foot and sometimes on a horse, depending on the budget.
The party did not stop after the engagement party and gathering of guests. Moreover, most of the feast and expenses were to come during the ceremony itself. Among a plethora of eccentric traditions, three bizarre customs were the most widespread. Firstly, the pageant of guests travels from the groom’s house to “purchase the bride.” On their way to the bride’s home, the guests would sing, offer drinks to anyone they meet and in return, the passers-by would offer food and more drinks to the guests. The bride’s family had to receive the guests with the greatest honors. The bride’s house was the place for another feast, a lot of singing, dancing, toast and exchange of gifts. The advent of the bride was the most controversial point. Her brother would stand in front of her room and guard the door. The groom’s brother is, even today, supposed to negotiate with the bride’s brother and “purchase the bride.” Besides the presents for the bride and her family, the bride’s brother had to be gifted money or golden coins to release his sister. Interestingly, this custom remained until today, in a humorous form though. As soon as the deal was made, the bride’s brother hands his sister to her brother-in-law.
Secondly, the purchase by no means meant freedom for the bride. Princess-like status was nonexistent back then. Throughout the celebration, the bride had to be close to her brother-in-law. He would follow her even to the toilet, cater for all her requests and “steal” food for her, because the bride was allowed to eat only in secret, when no one was watching. It was said that the bride would even sleep with her brother-in-law on the first night. However, no misuse of this occasion was recorded, as it would be considered incest. The bride and her brother-in-law were like real a brother and sister.
Thirdly, after the marital deal and the feast at the bride’s home were over, the cannonade marked the departure and the guests would leave along with the bride. As the guests were leaving, the bride’s parents and family would shout and call her in order to make her look back. It was believed that if the bride turned and looked back, her kids would take after her family. For that reason, the groom’s family was supposed to distract the bride, sing and talk to prevent her from turning back as they also wanted the heirs to take after them.
Finally, the arrival of the bride into the new family was another special moment. Balkan regions abounded in superstitions related to the bride’s entrance into the house. The mother-in-law was supposed to welcome and greet the bride at the door. In Montenegro, the bride had to step over a doormat under which there was a knife, this was supposed to make sure she would give birth to boys. The mother-in-law would also feed the bride with three spoons of honey and give her a handful of wheat grains to throw over the roof. In northern Serbia, mothers-in-law would feed brides with sugar, give them a bottle of wine in each hand and a loaf of bread under their arms, then the bride had to take everything into the house and place them on the dining table. The bride would sometimes also get a distaff and spindle and was expected to touch each wall with them. In all regions, upon the arrival at her new home, the bride would meet a child that she had to raise in the air three times successively, this would mean that she is able to have and raise kids.
After the extraordinary initiation, the bride was officially a member of the new family. Certainly, her new duties and more amusing traditions were yet to come. However, a complete clarification of all beliefs related to marital life, the role of a wife and expectations of women would be a mission impossible. Time has irrevocably obliterated some of the harsh practices, thus rendering weddings a more pleasurable experience for the brides. Despite their peculiar and irrational character, superstitions and customs unassailably shape cultures and the mentality of people. Tradition undeniably changes over time. The modern era makes tradition more humane and rational, but, on the other hand, modernization obliterates recognizable and distinct cultural specificities. Education and critical questioning of the past norms need to raise awareness of traditional trivialities. However, social progress should by no means eradicate roots and non-material wealth that each nation possesses. Rational preservation of tradition fosters diversity, promotes uniqueness of people and nurtures cultural sensitivity in generations to come.
The knowledge of culture is the means of its preservation. Despite illogical and anachronistic aspects, tradition will always teach us about past lifestyles, help us to appreciate the benefits we have now and serve as an inexhaustible well of inspiration for scientists, artists, linguists and many contemporary experts that are shaping and enhancing our present.