The wedding customs of the Roma in Bulgaria reveal the richness and the vast diversity in the world of Bulgaria Roma . Very often these customs are different for the different groups. Sometimes even Roma from one and the same group but living in different villages have differences for some elements of the wedding ritual. There are also differences between the wedding customs of the Roma in the past and nowadays. But they are all alike, because they expose the vivid and full of energy Romani spirit.
THE DECISION FOR THE WEDDING
In the past – until the 60s of the ХХ century all Roma groups had the custom that the parents decided whom their child would marry. It happened sometimes that even the young couple did not know each other, but the parents’ word was enough for the new family to be created. Today the custom that the parents create the family of their children and the custom that the children marry at the age of 14-15 is to be observed only by a few of the Roma – Kaldarashi, Burgudjii, Thracian Kalaidjii and some Romani Muslims (Horahane Roma and Millet). For the other Roma these customs are already past. And for the Bulgarians and the Bulgarian Turks the above mentioned customs have extinguished long time ago.
The initiative to create a new family came from the boy’s parents. When they liked a girl as suitable for their son, they went to her parents to ask for her hand. The Roma valued several things in the young girl. First, she was supposed to have good household skills: to work hard, to cook well and to keep the house clean and tidy, to know how to look after small children. That is why even from the early age her parents cultivated these qualities in their daughters. Romani girls at the age of 11-12 knew how to knead and bake bread, how to look after their younger brothers and sisters, how to cook and clean when their parents are not at home. Some Romani groups added to these qualities also professional skills in the traditional craft. For example Kopanari insisted on the young girl’s skill to be able to make wooden spoons and spindles as well as to know how to sell them at a profit.
Other quality, which was highly praised in the Romani girl, was her respectful attitude towards her parents and older people in general. This was a guarantee that the girl would treat her parents-in-law with not less respect. The Roma insisted also on the beauty of their future daughter-in-law. Quite often they were ready to pay extremely high dowery (babaak) for a beautiful daughter-in-law.
The Roma insisted especially on the virginity of the girl. It was supposed to be preserved for the husband during the first wedding night. If not, the parents might not ask the girl’s hand or might return her back to her parents. And her name was disgraced forever.
The girl’s qualities considered valuable were her hard working and skills in the traditional craft. Even from the earliest age the boys helped their fathers and that is why at the age of 13-14 a young Roma was able to work absolutely independently.
The girl’s parents insisted on something else – the name of the boy and his family had to be respected. No father would want to send his daughter to a family of spendthrift and drunkards.
In the past one of the obligatory and most respected wedding customs of the Roma was the matchmaking. In some groups it is still preserved even nowadays. After the boy’s parents like a girl for a daughter-in-law, they went to her parents’ home to ask for their permission. Of course, they send a secret messenger first. He/she was supposed to understand one single thing – whether the girl’s parents consider her ready for marriage and whether they are ready to accept guests for matchmaking.
If the girl’s father refuses, he does it with polite words and tells no neighbour or relative. This is done to preserve the honour of the boy’s father. If he agrees, he prepares for the guests – in-laws to visit them on the chosen day.
The boy’s parents arrive with a lot of gifts for the whole family of the future bride. They often bring richly decorated bottle of Rakia. Tied to it is a beautiful red or colourful kerchief – a symbol for the asking of a bride. Next to the kerchief a golden coin is also tied – this is a sign that the father –in-law is ready to pay dowry for the bride. A colourful bunch or a flower are put at the neck of the bottle– this symbolizes that the father-in-law and the mother-in-law want to show that their future daughter-in-law is a beautiful as the most beautiful flower. The words, with which (the Kaldarashi for example) the guests address the host show respect towards him, his family and his daughter: “Avilyam katka ande tumaro vilaetu! Ashundyam ka kate namerilpe o chiriklo, kairo dasles de kadaki bursh! Kate li suli ili nai? – We came here into your region! We’ve heard that the turtle-dove we’ve been looking for many years is here. Is she here or not?”
The girl prepares coffee, Turkish delight and other sweets for the guests. In the past she was supposed to knead and bake bread so that the father-in-law and the mother-in-law could see what their future daughter-in-law could do. According to the Rudari tradition the girl had to make wooden objects– spindles, spoons, bowls and to show how she was going to sell them.
After the parents are convinced in the girl’s skills, they discuss with her parents when, where and under what conditions the engagement and the wedding will take place. The first thing the parents negotiate is the dowry which has to be given for the bride. In the past Roma had the custom (and at many places it still exists) that the boy’s parents pay the dowry to the girl. This dowry is called “babaak“, “baba-aka” or “baba-haka”. The babaak is paid to the girl’s father, because he has raised and brought up his daughter, and now she is going to another house.
For the different Romani groups the babaak differed in quantity and form. For Rudari and the Romani Muslims it was mainly clothes and goods, and an amount of money was added to them. Today most of the Rudari and Romani Muslims do not pay babaak or it is only in goods (wine, Rakia, blankets, etc.). For Kaldarashi, the Thracian Kalaidjii and the Burgudžii the dowry was (and still is) mainly golden coins and money, and it was considered prestigious paying as higher price as possible. These Romani groups continue their tradition to pay the dowry for the bride even nowadays.
For most of the Roma the babaak was related to the virginity – i.e. the amount was paid only if the bride was a virgin and the bridegroom is her first man in life. If this condition wasn’t fulfilled, the girl’s father had to return half or even the whole amount of money. This was also clarified during the in-laws’ visit. Other things that were clarified were the dates for engagement and wedding. The in-laws negotiated even the slightest details, like the type of music which will be played, who the cooks will be, etc.
THE ENGAGEMENT (THE NISHAN)
Soon after the matchmaking an engagement (nishan) was arranged so that everybody understands that a new family is created. For many Roma (for example most of the Yerlii, irrespectively whether Muslims or Christians, as well as some Rudari) the engagement is more important even than the wedding, because after it the new couple starts living together.
The “Nishan” continues from 1 to 3 days. The bridegroom and his parents go with music to take the bride from her parents’ home. There, her female friends prepare her – they dress her, put make-up on her face, and for the Romani Muslims they modify her eyebrows making them thinner (for the first time in her life) and they also make “sakuz”. The aim is that the bride transforms from a girl into a grown-up maid. The clothes which the bride puts on for the nishan are usually made of expensive material. For the Roma Muslims they are traditional – shalwars and a blouse.
For most of the Yerlii and Rudari the first wedding night is a must. It is a proof for the girl’s honour. And the proof has to be taken out – this was the sheet from the first wedding night. After showing it the general spree starts – the music plays, the guests sing and dance and red, sweetened Rakia is drunk. The Rudari also tear off the head of a rooster and spray the walls of the house with its blood, and all present people – irrespectively whether men or women – put on lipstick.
For Kaldarashi as well as other Roma , these customs are observed during the last day of the wedding. The engagement for these Roma is not obligatory. On this day the boy’s parents gift to their daughter-in-law a golden coin and earrings, so that everybody knows that she is going to marry.
Years ago the Romani weddings continued for a whole week – from Monday to Friday, even to Sunday. Today Roma have shorter weddings – they usually last three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
In Roma tradition, just as it is in the Bulgarian and the Turkish ones, the evening before the wedding is very important and a number of rituals have to be implemented. It is devoted to the girl. In that evening the girl separates with her maid life and her family home. On the next day she is going to create her own family, go to a new house and her life will change forever.
For Romani Muslims (Horahane Roma and Millet) the evening before the wedding is called kana-gedzhesi – the evening of the henna. As the name shows, the central ritual in this evening (this is usually the Friday evening) is the henna dying of the future bride.
The custom of henna dying is common for many Muslim peoples. It is related with the belief that the saint Mariam (Mother Mary) was born with a red nishan (symbol) on her hands and hair. That is why each girl has to henna herself before wedding as a symbol of honour and purity.
Usually the hennaing is done by the godmother, but only in case that she has never divorced. Otherwise – according to the Romani belief – the bride might divorce after some time.
The henna dying starts with the palms of the future bride. The godmother puts coins on the hennaed palms of the bride and ties them, so that the marks of the coins are visible. Then she put an odd number of burning candles between the tied palms – one, three, five or seven. This is done to show that the maid has lit up so far her father’s home. The Roma believe that the burning candles will light the bride’s way from now on till her oldest age, and in this way there will always be light and happiness in her life.
The burning candles are not put out. As soon as the flame gets closer to her palms, the bride puts them in a bowl of flour. Then the godmother dyes the girl’s hair with henna. During the whole time the future bride has to keep silence. Her friends try jokingly to make her speak, tease her with jolly words, but she has to keep silence.
After the end of the hennaing, the godmother veils the girl with a red veil and together with the bridegroom she takes them to the yard. There the music plays a traditional song, which for many Romani Muslims is in Turkish language. In the yard the wedding guests greet the couple. This happens in the following way: their friends spread a red (or blue) veil over them which is a symbol of honour and purity. The new couple stands under the veil. All wedding guests pass by them, wish them something and decorate them with money. If the guests are older, the bride and the bridegroom kiss their hands as a sign of respect.
Christian Roma do braiding of the maid instead of hennaing. In the Friday evening the girl’s female friends come to her father’s house. The godmother also comes and braids the long girl’s hair. Before then the girl was wearing her hair free, but since that day on she has to braid her hair. At that time the girl’s friends knead the bread for the feast, singing songs to them. Then a party with a lot of music and joy starts.
The Rudari have a custom in the evening before the wedding, called fidiles. The boy’s parents come to the bride’s home to show their respect towards her and her parents. The guests have to be obligatory received with coffee. The party starts and during the whole evening the boy’s parents have to fulfil all wishes of the girl’s parents. They are often asked to dance on the table, to dance in a large baking dish, etc. This is done to check whether they really want their future daughter-in-law.
On Saturday morning the real wedding starts. Until noon the guests of the wedding are divided into two– the boy’s relatives prepare at his home, and all the girl’s kin is in her father’s home to support the bride’s worth sending off. A number of rituals are implemented in both houses.
At the boy’s home comes a barber, who shaves solemnly the bridegroom. This is to show everybody that he is a grown-up person – not a child, but a man to get married. During the shaving the clarinet player plays old sad melody. The bridegroom shall not cry, because in this way all the grief will remain away in his life.
Then the bridegroom, the godfather and the relatives leave to the bride’s home. Walking first is a younger brother or a cousin of the bridegroom (he has to be obligatory unmarried), who carries the wedding flag. It is material with two stripes – white and red and on the top of the flag there is a stuck apple and a bunch of flowers. The red material symbolizes the purity of the girl and the white – the purity of the boy. The two tied together stripes shows to everybody that a new family is to be created. The apple on the flag symbolizes the fertility and is a wish for many children and for wealth.
At that time the girl is being veiled at her home. Early in the morning a cousin of hers goes to a nearby well to fetch water, with which the girl washes her face. While filling in the water, the lad wishes: “As long the rope in the well is, as long and happy the life of the bride and bridegroom may be! May they have many children, money, happiness …”
After fetching the water the godmother washes the bride’s face and veils her. This is done in the following way: an apron is tied around the bride’s waist (the apron has to be loose and free, so that the veil can go through it). The godmother passes the veil three times through the apron and over the head of the bride, saying blessing and wishing the young family happiness and prosperity.
When the procession with the bridegroom comes, the relatives of the bride close the doors. They want money to open them. Then the bridegroom has to buy the bride’s shoe, her handbag and some other things. Al this happens with a lot of jokes, music, round dances and belly dances.
On the wedding day the bride is dressed in a white wedding dress– as is the clothing of the bride in a Bulgarian wedding. Some Muslim Roma still keep even nowadays the traditional wedding clothing “don anteri” – shalwars and a white shirt (or more likely a blouse). But it is worn during the engagement or in the evening before the wedding. The Kaldarashi pay special attention to the clothes which the bride wears – they have to be new, beautiful, expensive and on each day she has to wear different clothes. But even for them the obligatory bride clothing on the wedding day is a white wedding dress.
Then the procession takes the bride from the home to the bridegroom’s home. The moment, in which the young family gets out of the bride’s home, the traditional Bulgarian song “A fir-tree is bending, bending down!” is being played.
Before leaving the bride takes in her hands a young child and round bread, then she kicks a copper of water and cranesbill. This is done so that the life of the young family is full of children, they always have bread on their table and their life goes smoothly.
In the past symbolic obstacles were placed along the way from the bride’s home to the bridegroom’s home, the bride’s relatives arranged “ambushes” and required ransom to leave the procession go on its way. This was done because the road symbolized the growing up of the children, their transformation into adults, and each growth is accompanied by obstacles and difficulties.
The father-in-law and the mother-in-law go out to the entrance of the boy’s home. The put bread and honey in the mouths of the couple. Many Muslim Roma preserve the tradition according to which the bride shall spread some honey or sweetened water on the door of her new home– so that the life of the couple in the new home is sweet.
After meeting the bride to her new home the wedding party starts. In the past (sometimes even nowadays) it was done outdoors – on the meadow near the Romani neighbourhood or in the street. For this purpose large tents for 200-300 people were set up. Today is more common to celebrate weddings in a restaurant.
Important part of the wedding party for the Romani people is the band. For larger weddings even two bands may be hired, but the music obligatory shall not stop. Because tens, even hundreds of relatives, friends or just residents of the neighbourhood come to the wedding, and each person has his own taste, it is important that the band plays various music to satisfy everybody’s wish. It is a well-known rule that the Roma wedding depends a lot on the music– if the music is good, the wedding is to be remembered for years on. The Roma – irrespectively whether poor or rich– like to have fun from the bottom of their hearts, to pour their souls in songs and music that is why the wedding bands are so respected.
During the wedding party special attention is paid to the table where the bride’s parents sit at. It shall have everything they want – this is a sign for high respect towards them. For some Roma (for example the Kaldarashi) during the first day of the wedding the newly-married couple also stays behind the table of the girl’s parents. During the party the bride and the bridegroom are tied to each other by means of a red ribbon.
For many Roma an important moment in the wedding is the gifting. All guests have to gift something to the new couple. On one hand it is a sign of respect towards them. On the other – the new family needs a lot of things to start a normal life. Usually the Roma gift money. It is considered that even if a Roma is poor, he or she has to give as much money as possible on the wedding of his/her relative or friend.
Quite solemn is the gifting of Kaldarashi Roma . They do it as a way of mutual aid and guarantee for keeping the family ties. The band stands next to the gifting person, plays the song he/she wants and gives him the floor. The person says his wishes to the new couple and announces what he/she gifts. The Kaldarashi endow as much money as possible and in this way the new family gathers a large amount. According to the tradition of this Romani group, when the time comes, the new couple has to attend the wedding of the person who gifted them (or his son) and as a sign of gratitude and respect to gift him more than what they were gifted.
On a Roma wedding – like the Bulgarian ones – the most often wish to the newly married couple is for many children. For the Romani people the most important thing are the children. They are more important than money, society position and everything else. Roma consider the lack of children the biggest misfortune in life.
The wedding party continues during the whole day. For Kaldarashi and some other Roma the first wedding night of the bride and the bridegroom is on Saturday night. They do then the ritual “rakiinitsa”, which the other Roma do on the engagement (“nishan”).