This summer was shaping up to be quite the adventure for my boyfriend and me, with an unexpected twist in our travel plans. We received not one, but two wedding invitations from my cousins, both set in the same year – one in June and the other in August. And the destination of the wedding was the charming mountain town of Zakopane.
Although I’ve been to quite a few weddings in Poland, this was a brand-new experience for my Danish boyfriend, with all the local customs catching him completely off-guard. I was also intrigued to see how these two weddings would stand out from the other Polish weddings I had attended. The reason? My cousins hail from a unique area in Poland where Highlander culture is still deeply entrenched. This region is known for maintaining its distinct dialect, traditional attire worn for special events or in tourism-related occupations, and a wealth of traditions and customs. Not to mention, the food there is absolutely delectable.
Should you find yourself in Cracow (Kraków), I highly recommend setting aside a day or two for a side trip to Zakopane. Known as the heart of the Tatra region, Zakopane offers a unique and fascinating glimpse into a different aspect of Polish culture. Additionally, for a deeper dive into the lives of the Highlanders, there’s a documentary on Netflix titled “The Gorals – Highlanders of Carpathia” that’s well worth a watch.
In any case, the wedding turned out to be quite an experience, exceeding my expectations in the best possible way. So, let me share with you what a Highlander wedding is all about.
Size and duration of the wedding
Let’s begin by talking about the scale of these weddings. While most urban weddings I’ve been to had around 100 guests, typically close family and best friends, mountain weddings in the highlands often host between 250-350 people, sometimes even more. These weddings are significant family occasions in Podhale, where everyone from distant relatives to neighbors is invited, resulting in a substantial guest list.
The duration of the wedding can vary based on the couple’s preference, ranging from a single day to several days. The June wedding was a one-day affair for all guests, followed by a more intimate dinner the next day for a select few. In contrast, my female cousin’s wedding in August spanned two days. The first day was steeped in Highlander traditions, featuring a bridal gown in Highlander style, while the second day showcased a more conventional white wedding dress. A dinner for a select group marked the third day. My cousin told me that traditionally, the best men and bridesmaids would serve as waiters at the wedding, and the dinner on the last day was a gesture of appreciation from the bride and groom for their assistance. Nowadays, while catering has replaced this practice at wedding parties, the tradition of hosting thank-you dinners has continued.
Customs and traditions at a Highlander wedding
Highlander wedding preparations begin at dawn, with the bride receiving her makeup and hairstyle as the sun starts to rise. The household buzzes with activity from the early hours. We were lucky as we got to witness the preparations for the wedding from both sides – bride and groom.
A key part of the wedding day is the preparation of both the bride and groom in their respective family homes.
In the past, elder women (starościny) were responsible for assisting the bride in getting ready. Nowadays, this role is often filled by bridesmaids (druzcki – druhny).
An interesting tradition is that bridesmaids and best men must be unmarried. So, if you delay your wedding and most of your close friends are already married, you might have to ask younger cousins or unmarried friends to be your bridesmaids/best men. Bridesmaids and best men also wear traditional outfits, and the color and pattern of the girls’ dresses are based on the village the bride comes from.
The bridesmaids dress the bride in an exquisite traditional outfit. This ensemble includes a petticoat under the skirt, a white embroidered blouse, a white corset laced at the front with a white ribbon, and a white skirt. The attire is completed with traditional Highlander shoes known as kierpce and stunning jewelry made of natural red coral. The bride’s hair is styled into a bun and adorned with a wreath of green myrtle branches, symbolizing maidenhood and a long, flowing white ribbon.
Once the bride is fully dressed, she dispatches her bridesmaids and the announcers -‘pytace’ to the groom’s house. Announcers might not be the exact translation, but it’s the closest term I can think of. Traditionally, the Pytace would ride horses through the village to remind everyone about the impending wedding. Nowadays, their role has evolved to accompany the bride and groom during the ceremony, singing and making various announcements.
Upon arriving at the groom’s house, he awaits them, dressed in traditional attire. This includes a white shirt with a brass clasp, white trousers adorned with vibrant heart-shaped embroidery, a broad Highlander belt with brass buckles, and leather kierpce shoes. A felt hat embellished with shells and a feather signifying his unmarried status tops his ensemble. My cousin explained that these feathers, passed down from fathers to sons, are a cherished family heirloom. The bridesmaids assist the groom in donning his traditional coat (cucha), fastening it with a wide red ribbon. Once ready, his parents bestow their blessing, and the entire party boards carriages for the next part of the day.
Joined by the groom’s family, the procession embarks towards the bride’s house, filled with traditional music and singing. I knew that Polish weddings often involve a lot of drinking, but I was not prepared to start drinking vodka at 10 am while riding in a carriage through the village. It was quite the experience!
Reuniting in the bride’s house
Upon the groom’s arrival at his future in-laws’ home, he is greeted by his bride-to-be. She presents him with a new white shirt, which he changes into, and the red ribbon on his coat is replaced with a white one. The bridesmaids and best man then add small adornments to their coats and corsets. Once everyone is dressed and ready, either the parents or elders deliver an official speech and bestow their blessing upon the couple, who kneel to receive it. Amidst traditional music, the entire party boards the carriages, setting off for the church.
On the journey to the church, the groom rides in a carriage accompanied by the bridesmaids, whereas the bride is in another carriage with the best men. After the wedding ceremony in church, the newlyweds come together and journey towards the inn, the venue for their reception.
The duration of this procession can vary, depending on the distance between the bride’s house, the church, and the inn. For both weddings I attended, it took us a total of two hours to travel between these locations. Along the way, there were several stops where the organizers provided additional water and vodka, just in case we ran out – by the time we reached the inn, we were already tipsy, and it was only 2 pm 🙂
A fascinating custom that’s also practiced in my region is known as “wedding gates.” As the procession makes its way to the church and later to the inn, it’s common for people to set up impromptu blockades along the route, thus creating these so-called gates. In order for the procession to continue, the couple must offer a payment, typically in the form of vodka. At one such gate, my cousin was even required to fill a wheelbarrow with enough vodka to serve as a bribe!
The mountain region holds deep religious beliefs, making the church mass a vital component of the wedding ceremony. The ceremony itself is quite traditional, resembling most other weddings I have attended.
Once the mass concludes, the newly married couple exits the church, passing through an archway formed by their bridal party, which includes the bridesmaids and best men. Interestingly, both my male cousin and my cousin’s husband are members of a Volunteer Fire Department, so their firefighter friends created an additional archway using hatchets.
Following this, there’s a brief photo session outside the church. Here, the newlyweds pose for pictures with their close family members and their bridal party.
The procession then sets off for the inn, marking the next phase of the celebration.
Highlanders wedding party
As we neared the inn, we encountered a surprise – a firefighter truck blocking our path. As I mentioned earlier, my male cousin and my cousin’s husband both belong to a Volunteer Fire Department, and their friends had prepared a final wedding gate as a playful surprise.
The couple was tasked with extinguishing a small fire together, followed by the challenge of filling a water hose with enough vodka to reach from one end to the other. To cap off this unique experience, they were hoisted high into the air on the truck’s crane, adding an exciting twist to their special day.
When the newly married couple arrived at the inn, they received a warm welcome with offerings of bread and salt, representing wealth, love, endurance, and plentifulness in their future lives, along with a glass of vodka. As the couple entered, their guests trailed behind them. As we walked past a band of musicians, we could show our appreciation by tossing banknotes into the instruments of the players.
The event has no fixed seating plan, unlike the usual weddings I took part in, allowing guests the freedom to choose their seats. During the celebration, attendees mingle freely, engaging in conversation, singing, eating, and drinking with one another.
Amidst the festivities of drinking and singing, the bride and groom, accompanied by their best men and bridesmaids, took a brief excursion, lasting about an hour, to a picturesque spot for a photo session with Tatra mountains as a backdrop. The photos I saw later were truly stunning! Meanwhile, as the couple and their entourage were having a delightful time capturing these moments, we basked in the joyful atmosphere back at the inn.
The photo session during the wedding isn’t the sole opportunity for newlyweds to capture their special moments. It’s quite common for the couple to arrange a separate, more intimate photo shoot with their photographer on a different day. This allows for a more personalized and relaxed experience. However, the photo session that occurs amidst the wedding celebrations holds its unique charm. It’s a special chance to capture the essence of the day, surrounded by their closest friends, immortalizing the joy and camaraderie of their ‘team’ in the midst of the festivities.
I’m not quite sure how to translate ‘cepowiny’ directly, so allow me to describe it. The peak of a traditional Polish wedding is the ‘oczepiny’ ceremony, usually taking place around midnight with activities like tossing the bridal bouquet. However, at a highlander wedding, the highlight is the ‘cepowiny,’ starting around 9 PM. This ritual marks the bride’s introduction to married life. Central figures in this ceremony, besides the bride and groom, include the Elders and the Announcers.
In our experience, the ceremony was quite extensive, lasting perhaps one or two hours. The ‘cepowiny’ kicks off with the Announcers ‘kidnapping’ the bride, subsequently demanding a ‘ransom’ of symbolic gifts such as cheese, fruits, and vodka for her release. The Elders go above and beyond to satisfy the Announcers’ requests. This mock kidnapping and negotiation are performed as a musical exchange, with both sides singing their parts.
Following the bride’s ‘redemption,’ the Elders remove her wreath, a symbol of her maidenhood, and place a white scarf on her head, signifying her new status as a married woman.
Post-ceremony, guests line up to offer their wishes and envelopes to the bride, handing them to the Elders. These wishes are typically sung, with guests forming a semicircle and expressing their good tidings in song. As an outsider, I waited for a pause in the singing circles to offer my wishes without singing.
Simultaneously, the bridesmaids playfully snatch the groom’s hat and remove a feather from it, symbolizing his departure from bachelorhood. To retrieve his hat, the groom often has to ‘buy’ it back, usually with a bottle of spirits for each bridesmaid. The ‘cepowiny’ concludes with a dance by the newlyweds, followed by traditional Highlander dances for the guests, all set to the backdrop of beautiful Highlander music and songs.
The whole wedding celebration continued until the last guest was ready to leave. We departed around 1 AM, as my boyfriend was unaccustomed to the extensive vodka consumption, considering the festivities had started at 10 AM! According to my cousins, the last guests and they themselves left around 5 AM.
The ‘poprawiny,’ or day-after party, is a tradition not every couple opts for, but my female cousin chose to celebrate it. It provided her with an opportunity to wear a Western-style white wedding dress, and her husband donned a suit. The festivities kicked off around 2 PM, and understandably, the guests were somewhat more subdued, as we all parted hard the previous day. We noted the absence of a few people who either had to return to work or couldn’t attend the second day. Nonetheless, it was another splendid day filled with dancing, feasting, and enjoyment.
The ceremony was a fascinating showcase of customs, many of which I experienced for the first time. It opened my eyes to the vastness of Polish culture, aspects of which I was previously unaware. There’s a peculiar joy in rediscovering one’s own culture. Additionally, having to translate everything into English for my boyfriend added a layer of depth, compelling me to think more thoroughly about each tradition.
I’m grateful to my cousins for providing me with this opportunity and for their willingness to share their photos with me here❤️. I sincerely hope their experience was as unforgettable as ours and I wish them a lifetime of happiness in their marriage.