For most Polish people a wedding is a momentous event, with still only the minority deciding for the registry office rather than the church. Knowing that over 90% of Poles are Roman Catholics, it is only reasonable to have a wedding arranged in a Catholic church. In the old days before the concordat when church marriages would not be recognized by the Polish state, couples were required to hold a civil ceremony before or after the church ceremony. The guests thus followed the bride and groom from the registry office to the church – today this is no longer the case as the couples sign the required documents in the church which are then delivered to the office of vital records.
In terms of the ceremony itself, Polish weddings differ somewhat from the traditional marriage events known throughout the Anglo-Saxon culture. However, there are several similarities, such as the white dress tradition (ślub w białej sukni) according to which the bride wears a white wedding dress and veil (welon), indicating her (sexual) purity, although the times have changed significantly and it is not uncommon for brides to no longer be virgins when approaching the altar (przed ołtarzem) or visiting the registry office (w urzędzie stanu cywilnego or USC for short). On the other hand, though, a white dress and veil would be unusual choices for a woman's second or subsequent wedding.
It is not customary or allowed in Poland for the young couple (para młoda), despite the age at which they may be entering marriage, as the bride (panna młoda) and groom (pan młody) are usually referred to in Poland, to have a wedding ceremony at any place – it has to be either the church or the registry office, with a priest (ksiądz) or a marriage official (urzędnik USC) presiding over the ceremony. During this couples exchange rings (obrączki) signifying their commitment to each other. When entering and leaving the church or the registry office it is customary for Mendelssohn’s Wedding March to be played. Once the ceremony is over and outside the building, couples will be greeted by the wedding guests with tosses of rice (ryż), money (pieniądze) or rose petals (płatki róż). If money is thrown, the newlyweds are expected to pick up all of the coins to ensure they are wealthy in their marriage. After they have dealt with the various “tosses”, the couple, assisted by the best man (świadek or drużba) and the maid of honor (świadkowa or druhna) will find a spot in which they will spend the next 30 minutes or so accepting wishes, gifts and flowers from the guests – long waiting lines are not an unusual sight. The best man and the maid of honor will collect the flowers, gifts and the envelopes containing money, while the young couple receive the wishes and get kissed all over by everyone in the line.
The wedding is often followed by a reception or wedding party (przyjęcie weselne), depending on the generosity of the bride’s and groom’s parents, usually lasting all night. Some young couples decide against it, but the tradition and the older family members keep it strong, and there are only few out there to skip the event, regardless the cost. The event is usually initiated with a traditional welcome of the newlyweds with bread and salt (tradycyjne przywitanie chlebem i solą), and possibly a glass of vodka. Following this the groom is expected to lift the bride and carry her over the threshold (przenieść pannę młodą przez próg), being a characteristic rite of passage. Once inside, the guests drink the good health of the young couple and the wedding reception begins.
For starters the floor is taken by the newlyweds who dance alone while being admired by the guests gathered around. With this first dance (pierwszy taniec) the celebration can begin, and guests will join the young couple on the floor. If music is provided by a band (zespół), usually the leader will also be an MC (wodzirej), with the function also performed by the operator of the musical equipment when no live music is available. Contrary to the English or American tradition, the wedding rituals will not include speeches from the groom, best man, father of the bride or the groom. However, the bride and groom will usually visit all the tables and personally talk to the guests, while also downing drinks with all of them – quite a challenge there!
At midnight the MC announces the best known ritual of Oczepiny (from czepek – cap), or the official replacement of a traditional maiden’s wreath with a married woman’s cap. This tradition no longer involves wreaths and caps, but is an opportunity to hold a variety of (sometimes rather naughty) games and have fun. The wedding traditionally continues until the break of dawn, but depending on the amount of alcohol consumed by the guests or the newlyweds, it may end a little earlier. The reception is concluded with the cutting of the cake (krojenie tortu), and this is the time when most guests decide to go back home, offering the last wishes to the young couple before departure.
Poprawiny (a repeat reception) used to be a common follow-up to the wedding party, and depending where the event was organized and how much food and alcohol has been left over, this may or may not be held – it may be difficult to have any guests join the newlyweds at all at the poprawiny :)