Once upon a time the first wedding night was rather a nightmare for the brides, while the first days of marital life were not far from a ‘daymare.’ Wedding traditions in the Balkans guaranteed lavish feasting, merrymaking and presents for the guests. The joy of the newlyweds was questionable, though. Not only was the honeymoon non-existent, but a couple could be considered lucky if they had basic privacy in their bedroom. Extraordinary customs were unassailably harsh towards the girls, but young men were not exempt from bizarre practices either. The traditions related to the first wedding night and the initial days of marital life reveal the struggles that young people in Serbia and Montenegro used to face.
Centuries ago, the first wedding night was more of a family matter than an intimate act due to practical and conventional reasons. Firstly, the architecture in the Balkans in previous centuries determined the lifestyle of people to a great extent. Most houses did not have separate rooms and even if there was a separate chamber, it was seldom intended for the newlyweds. Although desirable in many stages of human life, a family atmosphere is not considered the most arousing environment for the first wedding night, which was at that time the first sexual experience for many. Besides practical reasons for sexual reluctance, there were ethical ones as well. Our Balkan ancestors in their youth were expected to be shy, modest and obedient. Such virtues represented another obstacle in the bedroom. Additionally, a lot of marriages were arranged in the past, so the fact that newlyweds did not know each other intensified the anxiety.
The assistance of family members and guests to the newlyweds during the first wedding night was meant to facilitate reproduction and to compensate for uncomfortable housing, ethical and social circumstances. Despite good intentions, the intervention of the family was rather a terror for the young couple. For instance, according to certain Serbian customs, the bride would spend the first night with her brother-in-law. The bride and her brother-in-law were considered like brother and sister, so this intimacy was never taken advantage of, as it would be incestuous. In Montenegro, on the other hand, the mother-in-law and sister-in-law would go to bed with the bride first and when the bride fell asleep the in-laws would leave the bed so that the groom could sneak in. In other cases, the bride would sleep with her mother-in-law for several weeks and the groom would sleep in the stable, with animals, before the bride fully adapted to the new family and overcame her shyness.
Even those who were fortunate enough to have a private chamber were not spared from the intervention of the family. In northern Serbia, the newlyweds would ‘unnoticeably’ escape their wedding celebration. When it was late enough, the best man would initiate dancing and singing so that the groom could flee first. Afterwards, the bride would leave the party along with an older member of the groom’s family who would take her to the bedroom or another place where the groom was already waiting for her. The couple would then have dinner together. Typically, the dinner included roasted chicken and fresh bread that the couple ate from the wooden chest that the bride brought, instead of a dining table. In other parts of Serbia, an old guest from the groom’s family would take the newlyweds to the room. At that point, the groom had to undo the bride’s hair and she would take off his shoes. They would go to bed then and the old guest would leave, close the door and smash a glass against it.
Whatever happened in the bedroom remained a secret until the next morning, which included other practices that would be absolutely unimaginable today. The eastern regions in Serbia adopted a Bulgarian custom of exposing the bride’s nightgown the morning after the first wedding night. Bloody marks were the sign of timely lost virginity and, thus, highly desirable. On the contrary, the absence of marks and stains on the nightgown could indicate the bride’s promiscuity and represented shame and disgrace for her family as well as the risk for her marital harmony in the future. Besides the chastity exam the morning after, the bride had to get up before everyone else, light a fire and bring water. When other members of the family woke up, the bride had to bring water to each of them and help them wash their faces and hands.
The 'regular life' for the new couple and especially for the bride did not start even after all the procedures described. The bride was not supposed to leave the house at all for the first week usually, which was a uniform rule in all regions. On the first Sunday after the wedding, the bride would go to church, but by no means alone. Older women from the family would first help the bride choose the most luxurious clothes and jewelry and fashion an elegant hairstyle that could include up to two hundred decorative pins. Once the bride’s ‘Sunday best’ was ready, the pageant of women would walk to the church and attend the liturgy. After that, the bride was allowed to leave the home. However, she still had to respect the rules of humility and obedience which were mirrored in the way she addressed other family members. Namely, the bride was not allowed to address anyone by their first names, instead she had to come up with endearments for young family members and address the older ones as ‘sir’ or ‘miss.’
The household organization coupled with strict ethical norms irrevocably shaped the mentality and behavioral patterns of many generations in the past. The fear of disgrace and shame, on the one hand, and the efforts of families to ensure reproduction, on the other, obliterated the concept of privacy and distorted intimacy. Moreover, the cult of modesty and humility dominantly determined the marital life even outside the bedroom. Shared pain brings people together, they say. Considering the fact that marriages in the past were mostly arranged and that newlyweds did not actually know each other, the mutual struggles and initial discomfort could have been a kind of bonding.
It should be noted that despite the perplexities of family life, the concept of family has never been as strong as in the past centuries. Was it the consequence of the lack of choice, or the resilience gained through the difficulties, will remain an open question forever. New generations should remember that “the times, they are a changing...” We might laugh at the misconceptions of our ancestors while our offspring might find our live wedding streams and relationship status updates equally ridiculous. From the reminiscences of harsh former practices, young generations should learn not to judge their ancestors for their lack of knowledge, but to be grateful for the education they have, appreciate the freedom and cherish the partners they chose themselves.