Have you seen the famous romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Did you think that it had to be exaggerated? I can’t say anything for actual Greek weddings, but traditional Croatian weddings aren’t that different. Although Croatia is a small country, there are still many regional differences, so I will try to present all the stages of the wedding celebration that most regions share. Another important note is that, naturally, there are people who have smaller receptions, don’t adhere to these traditions or simply get married without having a party at all. Moreover, this is getting to be more and more popular, especially in bigger cities. However, a traditional wedding is still very much present and there certainly isn’t a lack of couples that want to get married this way.
Getting married in Croatia
So what does a traditional Croatian wedding (in Croatian: vjenčanje) look like nowadays? Let’s first look at it from the perspective of the people who are organizing it. First of all, they tend to be expensive. In many cases, parents are the ones who pay for the wedding. Even if they aren’t paying, they tend to be very much involved in the organization. Everything starts with the engagement, which usually takes place about one year before the wedding. If they want to follow the tradition to the letter, the groom and his father should ask the bride’s father for her hand. Of course, the real proposal has already taken place, and the bride is the one who chooses, so this is considered to be a polite formality.
One of the first important questions to settle after the engagement (in Croatian: zaruke) is how big the wedding will be. If you decide to have a traditional wedding, it means that you have decided to have at least one hundred people (often 200, 300 or even more). It also usually entails having a church wedding (although you can take part in many customs even if you have a civil wedding), which is followed by the dinner and dancing till the next morning. There are usually some additional events during the day, which I will touch upon later.
Choosing the type of the wedding you will have can cause some friction between fiance and fiancee, but even more problems between their respective families. Croats (especially older generations) tend to feel indebted when weddings (and other bigger celebrations) are in question. For example, if you were at your cousin’s daughter’s wedding five years ago, you tend to feel that you are obliged to invite their whole family to your (or your child’s or even grandchild’s) wedding as well. Consequently, parents and grandparents tend to have very firm ideas about who should be invited. Relatives, family friends, neighbours, your parents’ colleagues – the number can rise quite quickly. It is not uncommon to meet some people for the first time at your own wedding.
Once this touchy subject has been discussed and the tension resolved, you are left with choosing a venue. Popular venues tend to get booked quite early, so people usually book the venue and set the date approximately one year in advance. Once you have your venue (which usually provides food or even decoration as well), you have to find a band or a DJ, a wedding dress (in Croatian: vjenčanica), wedding cake, choose colours and decorations, print invitations and choose other members of the wedding party. How stressful this preparation is will usually depend on how obsessed with details you are, and often more importantly, how well you can handle your family and in-laws.
When the invitations (in Croatian: pozivnice) are printed, they are usually given to guests-to-be in person, either by the couple or their parents. This social ritual is also usually accompanied by rakija.
Being a guest – pre-nuptial ceremonies
What can you expect if you are invited to a Croatian wedding? First of all, it is important to keep in mind that weddings tend to be a whole-day affair. Brides and grooms usually get ready at their parents’ homes (which means, separately). Both parents prepare pre-wedding receptions at their homes so that their relatives can come there before the wedding and prepare for the following traditional pre-nuptial events. In the very traditional scenario it means that a band (playing traditional music) will come to the groom’s parents’ house, play for the guests (some rakija might be drunk) and together with barjaktar (a man waving a Croatian flag) lead the guests to the bride’s parents’ home, where their guests are waiting and enjoying their own separate feast.
If the wedding is really traditional, something a bit strange happens at the bride’s place. The bride’s brother or another relative will ask the groom’s entourage to pay for the bride. He then tries to trick the groom by giving him ‘a fake bride’ (usually an old woman or a man dressed in bridal clothes). Jolly laughter and teasing entail, and in the end, the groom pays a respectful amount and the real bride makes the entrance. All the guests (in Croatian: gosti) go to church together, led again by the man waving the flag (barjaktar) and the best man (both are expected to be quite drunk at this point). The cars are usually decorated with balloons and flowers (bridesmaids’ job) and you are expected to honk a lot while in traffic to show that you are part of the wedding.
Wedding party – eat sarma, drink rakija and dance kolo
After the actual wedding ritual is done (either in the church or in a city hall), the guests throw rice on the newlyweds (nowadays confetti and soap bubbles are also popular) and give them their best wishes. If there are children nearby, they can yell ‘kume, izgori ti kesa!’ (best man, your sack has burned) to get some coins from the best man. What can surprise guests from other countries, but is slowly disappearing, is the tradition of the bride and the groom being led to the altar by bridesmaids (djeveruše – they lead the groom) and their male equivalents (unmarried male relatives – djeveri), who lead the bride. However, nowadays, the couple often comes to the altar together or the bride chooses to be led by her father.
Church decorations by Vjenčanja Lily
After the ceremony, all the guests go together again (and honk along the way) to the wedding venue. Traditionally, bridesmaids will pin a rosemary sprig decorated with tiny Croatian flag to every guest’s attire. If this happens, you are expected to give money to the bridesmaids. Rosemary is a symbol of faithfulness, so it is there as a good omen for the couple.
Rosemary by Vjenčanja Lily
After the national anthem is played and grace is given, it is time for the toast. There usually aren’t any speeches, except for the short ‘Živjeli mladenci!’ (Long live the newlyweds!). At truly traditional weddings in continental Croatia, there should be a few courses: strong chicken soup with noodles, cooked meat with sauces, sarma (cabbage rolls), meat roasted on the pit (pork or lamb) and goulash later at night.
However, nowadays the continental menu usually consists of more generic dishes – cold cuts (cheese, kulen, prosciutto, cottage cheese with sour cream), ragout soup, meat platters with side dishes, roasted meat (usually lamb and pork) and again goulash (or sarma) later at night. In Dalmatia, the traditional menu is slightly different – there is usually prosciutto and cheese as a starter (today seafood risottos are also popular hot starters), which is followed with lamb or veal roasted under ‘’peka’’ (roasted under hot ash) and finally, pašticada is served (beef cooked in thick sauce made of root vegetables, prosecco wine, tomato sauce and prunes).
A few decades ago, weddings often took place at community halls or under big tents. The food was cooked by other women from the same village or by relatives. Today that is not a common practice, so relatives and neighbours often don’t cook main dishes, but they often still bring desserts. These desserts are known as ‘svatovski kolači’.
Wedding cakes by Dergez Bakery
These are small cakes or cookies that can be eaten in one bite and can survive being out of the fridge for many hours. There are many different types of cakes that belong to this category, so it is not uncommon to have 30 different sorts of dessert platters. The most famous one served in continental Croatia is certainly mađarica. It consists of numerous thin layers of white, slightly crispy crust and chocolate filling. Women can get quite competitive with their mađarica – the thinner the layers are, the better cook you are considered to be.
Popular Dalmatian celebratory cookies are rafioli. These are half-moon shaped cookies filled with ground almonds, rum and lemon and orange zest.
Between the courses, guests usually dance. A truly traditional wedding has to have live music (often playing folk music – either traditional one or modern versions of it). Tamburaši are a popular traditional choice in continental Croatia – they play different types of tamburica (small string instrument played by plucking the strings) and sing traditional songs. This type of music is perfect for kolo – a traditional dance in which dancers dance together in a circle holding hands.
If you have a song request, you are often expected to tip the players. As the night progresses, these tips tend to get more generous as guests also get more competitive. However, today contemporary hits and old Yugoslavian rock music are also popular, so bands usually play more typical instruments.
After the last savoury course is finished, there is also a wedding cake. It’s typically a multi-layered cake, and same as in many other countries, the bride and the groom cut the first slice and feed each other.
Once all the guests are served, it’s time to give gifts. Guests one by one congratulate the newlyweds again, take a photo with them and give their gifts. Since gift registry hasn’t really taken root in Croatia, most people bring money in a greeting card as a gift. Paintings and smaller appliances are also popular gifts. If you wonder how much you are expected to give, most people would say that you are expected to ‘’cover the cost of your seat’’, which means that in the end, you (and everyone that comes along with you) shouldn’t cost the newlyweds more than you have given back with your gift.
Once the gifts are given, in case you don’t enjoy rowdy parties, you are allowed to go. However, if you decide to stay, you can expect a lot of dancing and drinking until the morning. There aren’t any official rituals left, but you might miss some important events that your family, neighbours or friends might retell for decades to come: the bride’s mother might do some unladylike things in her exhilaration due to getting her daughter married, the main singer might get so drunk on rakija that the best man will be forced to replace him, some guns might be pulled and shot in (hopefully) air as a sign of their owner’s happiness, some hearts might get broken, old passions might get rekindled.
By Croatian Tragedies
”There have already been three empty envelopes”
At Croatian weddings, guests usually give money as a gift to newlyweds. The money is given in an envelope during a gift-giving ceremony, so if a guest doesn’t want to give a gift, but also doesn’t want to appear stingy in front of other guests, he or she can give an empty envelope to trick them. This doesn’t happen often, but…
If you are a foreigner, there is probably no event better than a traditional wedding to quickly give you a sense of the culture you have found yourself in. You might see how much many Croats are involved with their family, community, and tradition. You might also see how these relationships might occasionally be a bit rocky. Nevertheless, there will certainly be enough great food and drink to make sure you will enjoy the day.
Have you ever been to a Croatian wedding?
Featured image (on top): Barjaktar by Ante Gašpar