An American's Account of a Polish Wedding
When I received an invitation to one of Damian’s friend’s weddings, I immediately began to panic. I had heard so many stories and rumors about Polish weddings. Endless vodka, crazy games, bizarre music and a sleepless night. It turns out all of these rumors are true.
The differences between Polish weddings and those in the US start from the beginning with the invitation. Poles do not send a Save The Date card and don’t expect an invitation in the mail. The bride and groom personally hand deliver your exquisite invitation to your home. Once you open the invite, you immediately give them your response (this serves as your RSVP).
The ceremonial portion of the wedding begins around one in the afternoon on a Saturday at the local Catholic church. This formal ceremony is called the Ślub. After the ceremony, around 3 or 4, all of the wedding guests meet at the venue where the party begins. This portion of the wedding is called the Wesele. Day Two of the wedding, called the Poprawiny, resumes on Sunday around noon and carries on into the late evening.
Most weddings are held at hotels. These extraordinary venues are all inclusive, providing party space, food and accommodation for guests. Wedding season is so large in Poland that some hotels will have 4 or 5 weddings happening at the same time. It’s a truly incredible feat of planning.
Before The Wedding
It’s difficult enough not speaking the language or knowing anyone, but throw in a traditional cultural affair and my anxiety was through the roof. A month before the wedding, I started asking around to our Polish friends about what I should wear. Everyone described something a little different. I even went as far as to find some online forums, where other outsiders shared their experiences with Polish weddings. This didn’t put me any more at ease. Finally, I settled on a formal blue chiffon cocktail dress and a pair of low heels.
Ślub - At The Church
The day of the wedding was warm and sunny. We dressed and Damian’s parents captured some photos of us outside their house. It felt a bit like getting ready to attend a high school prom. Our first stop was the official ceremony at the church.
The ceremony is led by a Catholic priest and is very serious. It is conducted in Polish (obviously), which Damian translated bits and pieces of for me. It turns out most of the ceremony is focused on God (obvious again) and actually touches very lightly on the couple. As I am not Catholic, this was all a new experience for me.
Here’s where the fun begins. After the ceremony, everyone gathers outside of the church and waits for the couple to exit. After they appear everyone cheers and bursts into a round of the Polish celebratory song “Sto Lat,” a song traditionally sung on birthdays and weddings that wishes the couple a happy 100 years.
Immediately after, a strict line is formed (what we might view as a receiving line in the US). Each person goes up to the couple and gives them the appropriate greeting of kisses on the cheek, followed by well wishes and a present. Poles take wishes very seriously (I call them wishes because I don’t know any better way to describes them, possibly good lucks or positive affirmations). In Polish you would traditionally say “Wszystkiego najlepszego!” which translates to “All the best!” Your gift usually consists of a card with money and a bottle of wine or flowers (wedding registries are not a thing in Poland). It is important that your card contain money. This is seen as your contribution for paying to be a guest at the wedding and includes your meal, drink and hospitality of the couple.
While we were waiting our turn in line, I found myself repeating the two words of wishes over and over. They were so difficult for me to pronounce at the time and I really wanted to make a good first impression on the bride and groom. I was also stressing about how to handle the cheek kisses (which is something I still stress about with greetings to this day). Are they going to go for the right or the left cheek first? Will they do 1, 2, 3 or even 4 kisses?? What if I accidentally mess up and end up kissing them on the lips?! Just a few of the worries of an outsider in Poland.
When we finally arrived at the bride and groom, I fumbled my way through the kiss greetings and stumbled through the Polish wishes. Despite my worries, the bride and groom were smiling, kind and amazed that I had said something in Polish.
Wesele - The Party Begins
After the ceremony, we returned to Damian’s parents house to get our suitcases. As Polish weddings last for 2 days (at least) and are often held at a hotel, most guests that don’t live in the area will stay the night. This allows for maximum all night partying and eliminates the risk of drinking and driving — a big no-no in Poland — and if caught you will immediately lose your drivers license for years.
We arrived at the hotel and checked into our room. From there we went to find the hall where the party would be held. We took our seats at a table full of Damian’s friends. I stumbled through my awkward greetings and introductions relying heavily on my smile.
Wedding guests were dressed up in classy suits and elegant cocktail dresses. I felt better about the outfit I had finally settled on. It appeared that most women have their hair done up for the special occasion. One thing that I found to be incredible, was the height of some of the women’s heels. I’ve never been good at walking in heels (I even occasionally trip in flats) so I was impressed to say the least. Some of the women were effortlessly adorned in 6 inch stilettos and made walking look like a piece of cake. Amazing.
The room was large with tables surrounding a wooden dance floor with a DJ at the front. Polish wedding DJs are really something special. Not only do they announce and direct the general flow of the wedding, but facilitate all of the games as well as keep the funky disco polo hits rolling. (Disco Polo music is a whole other story in itself).
The guests all go outside again to greet the bridge and groom as they enter. Their entrance is marked with eating a piece of beautiful decorated bread — representing that the couple may never know hunger — and salt — representing life’s difficulties and finding a way to cope with them. There are also two shot glasses, one filled with water and the other with vodka. The bride and groom do not know which glass contains which. The first glass is offered to the bride for her choosing. It is said that whoever consumes the vodka will be the leader in the marriage. After the shot is taken, the glasses are thrown backwards over the shoulder of the couple and smash as a sign of good luck.
All About The Food
Food is one of the main focuses of a Polish wedding. Every hour after the main dinner is served, another course will be brought to the tables. Let’s start from the beginning.
After the bride and groom have entered, everyone takes their seats. The first course to arrive at the table is soup, typically rosół, which is a traditional Polish chicken noodle soup. Following the soup is the main course, which usually consists of some type of meat and potatoes. After everyone has started in on their main course, servers bring and endless supply of side dishes and tapas including (but by no means limited to) potato salads, kopytka (kind of like a Polish gnocchi), herring, pickles, green salads, meat rolls and many, many, many more dishes.
Traditionally, alcohol is not had with the meal but instead water or juice. As soon as the main meal is wrapping up, the vodka comes out. Each table setting comes compelete with a small shot glass and the table with a large bottle of vodka (that will be frequently replaced). One of Damian’s uncles once told us that when they bought vodka for their daughter’s wedding, they budgeted 1.5 liter bottles per person.
The food that is brought to the table, is not the only food served at the wedding. In addition to this, you will also find an incredibly beautifully decorated table covered in breads of all shapes and sizes, traditional meats including kabanosy (kind of like a cured jerky stick), sliced meats, something I call "meat-jello" (which is really meat and vegetable pieces inside a clear gelatin mold), smalec (a fatty lard spread), butter, nuts, fresh fruit and so much more. This table is SO beautiful.
There is also a beverage table that offers red and white wines, beer and the backup vodka supply. You will also find a desert table that offers a wide array of different delicacies from custards and ice cream to cakes and tarts. This table is delicious.
Getting The Party Started
After the main meal finishes and the vodka has been poured, the conversations really begin. People start to circulate and interact with other guests. They take shots together. There will be toasts that occur throughout the evening such as “gorzko, gorzko, gorzko” which literally translates to “bitter, bitter, bitter” demanding the bride and groom to kiss, aka ask for some sugar.
The big moment has arrived. The bride and groom will share in their first dance. This tradition may seem familiar, but I assure you, it is not. Most couples in Poland will attend professional dance lessons for 6 months or more before their wedding. They work hard learning the skills and choreographing the perfect dance with a professional. And you may imagine a humorous choreographed dance, but no, this is a professional award winning dance. This performance was particularly incredible as the groom lifted the bride over his head and spun her around the dance floor.
If you are not someone who is a fan of taking vodka shots all night, you had better have a good excuse, and I mean, a really good one. Examples are being pregnant and I really can’t think of any other. You will be pressured into drinking for the whole night. As someone who was never really a fan of taking vodka shots, this night I chose to participate. When in Rome right? I learned the next day (aside from still being a little drunk) I didn’t actually feel that sick compared to other drinking experiences I have had in the past. Poles believe that not mixing drinks and sticking to clear alcohol almost always prevents a severe hangover. There may be some truth in that!
Once people start to feel happy, loose and well fed is when the dancing begins. Disco Polo, as I mentioned earlier, starts to play and everyone gets on their feet. Damian and I took advantage of this time to catch a breath of fresh air. We took a walk around the hotel property that also had a small farm with horses, goats and chickens. It was a warm evening with a beautiful sunset, the perfect after dinner walk. Because we were guests at the hotel, we could easily go back to our room and freshen up, which is much needed for a party that lasts upwards of 12 hours.
Let Them Eat Cake - Let The Games Begin
After returning to the party, the cake rolled in. This cake was incredible. I swear there were fireworks shooting out of it. Once the light show died out, the bride and groom cut a big slice and fed it to each other. It’s sweet. We all indulged in the delicious cake, took more shots and headed back to the dance floor.
Now it’s time for the games to begin. This is something I tried to hide from as I was already stressed enough not knowing what was going on. The games consist of activities such as musical chairs where the last male and female standing share a dance, the removal of the garter, or hoisting the groom up on shoulders and throwing him into the air.
Around midnight is the next big spectacle. From the corner of the room, a giant tray is rolled out that holds an enormous flaming wild pig. The fire is put out with a natural extinguisher and is then sliced into huge pieces for the guests to enjoy. What better way to fill your stomach after finishing a bottle of vodka than with a hunk of wild meat.
Now if you can make it until 1 or 2am you are in luck. This is when a warm cup of red borscht (barszcz czerwone) is served with a small croquette on the side. This delicious dish is well worth losing a few more hours of sleep over!
The night carries on and on until guests can no longer stand and slowly start to wander back to their hotel room. This doesn’t happen until almost 4am. Damian and I make it back to our room and immediately pass out.
The Morning After
We wake up a few hours later, parched and dry. We rouse ourselves, slip on some shoes, and wander down to the hotel breakfast. This spread was almost as incredible as the one at the wedding. The buffet is filled with fresh baked breads, meats, cheeses, eggs, fruits and anything else you can imagine. It was exactly what my vodka filled stomach needed. That and a cup of coffee.
After breakfast, we returned to our room and showered to get ready for day two. This day is call poprawiny, which means to correct or to improve (something we all needed after the last night’s events). This day is much less formal than the first day. Around noon, guests wander back to the same room as the night before. After finding their seats, another meal is served starting again with soup. There’s nothing like soup to cure a hangover, something I now truly believe. The meal is made up of more meat and potatoes and other side dishes.
People usually start drinking again (hair of the dog right?) choosing from more vodka or beer. I’m never very good at day two of the wedding, a hangover and very little sleep make it almost impossible for me to function (I guess it starts to happen at a certain age). Some people at the wedding prove to be very good at it and the second day can last late into the evening, filled with more food, more drinking and more dancing.
I know this is not how every Polish wedding is organized, but this is based on my first traditional experience. Since this time, I have attended 4 more Polish weddings (my own included) and they have all been slightly different. If you have the opportunity to attend one, don’t miss out! It’s not just a wedding but an entire cultural experience. Poles are so much fun, so kind and so generous. A chance to celebrate with them should not be missed!
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