The Culture of Weddings: Ukraine vs. USA

I never wanted a ‘traditional’ wedding - I never fantasized about it nor created scrapbooks of the perfect event. I knew I wanted to have a partner to share my life with by my side but I didn't care what will the ‘send off’ looked like.

In most American movies I got used to seeing church weddings and funny priests, flower decor and beautiful dresses, but even without using my degree I could see through the Hollywood smokescreen. Americans kept telling me that weddings are an industry and I could potentially understand it but I don’t think I fully grasped this until I faced the industry head on.

Everyone gets married in a registry office in Ukraine. In the last couple of years outdoor ceremonies have been gaining popularity but they still have years of development and perfection to go. A registry office is usually a rather depressing place with tacky decor, and a woman who has been marrying people all day and is sick and tired of her well-rehearsed speech, polished over the years. Couples come in, she delivers her speech, they sign the book of registration (that’s a thing) - their maid-of-honor and best man sign it as witnesses, they turn around, and they go and drink.

Rather simple, right? Wrong. Here are 5 things that are messed up with the way Ukrainians do weddings:

1. You do not know the person officiating the wedding. Most likely you will be seeing that woman for the first (and the last) time in your life. A stranger is responsible for giving your marriage boat that push off the shore.

2. You can’t put your own spin on the decor of the registry office, therefore, you and thousands of couples after you will have the exact same pictures inside the cheap and old interior of the happiest place in your marriage.

3. The officiator’s speech is always the same. Yes, she is wishing happiness to you and a couple after you. Does she care about your name or your story? Doubt it.

4. Since it is registry office job to marry couples - they get tired and cranky too. So, do not be surprised if someone yells at you on your wedding day.

5. If you come from a religious background you still have to get married in the registry office and only after have a ceremony at your place of worship.

After the official part, everyone goes to a reception that is usually held in a restaurant and gets trashed. But this is common for most cultures. What makes Ukraine stand out is that a lot of receptions have a specifically hired person whose job it is to come up with entertainment. No joke: this person is playing MC and an event manager, and is dealing with everything else on the fly. This person is called тамада (~toastmaster). There is not really an accurate translation for this person’s job but rest assured: it is hard hard work. Fun games are involved (sometimes inappropriate games too). All of this fun is supposed to not only entertain but bring two families and all the friends invited together. And that’s kinda beautiful, isn’t it?

There are a lot of traditions involved - some are mostly to entertain, some people really do believe in. For example, the toastmaster (тамада) is collecting money throughout the whole wedding. One jar is for the girl one jar is for the boy (future kids, that is). At the end of the night the money is counted and if one gender has more money in the jar than the other - that will be the sex of the couple’s first child.

Here is another one for you: right after the ceremony the mothers of the couple lay down a рушник at the feet of their children (~embroidered towel from the generations before). It used to be that a mother of the bride was supposed to embroider it herself - now you can just purchase one. The couple turns around and steps on the рушник. Whoever made the first step (either a bride or a groom) will then be the ‘head of the house’. Sorry y’all - equality wasn’t invited to the ceremony.

Weddings rarely last a day. Back in the day it was three days or even more - now it is just two days or so. During the second day the parents and ‘older’ folks are usually not present. The second day is limited to hangover cures and binge eating leftover food. And trust me when I say: the second day is the best.

I haven’t been living in Ukraine for awhile but I know things are changing. Changing for the better! More and more couples now seek originality and isn’t it great? I am sure my knowledge and experience with Ukrainian weddings is getting more and more outdated with every single word I type.

Best gift to give to Ukrainian newlyweds? Money.

Now, let us glance at the USA. I’ve been to quite a few weddings here in the US and feel like I have a harder ground to stand on when it comes to wedding structures. No two weddings were the same, of course.

Here is a step-by-step of a wedding timeline as seen from the point of a friend/invitee:

1. Couple decides to get married, gets engaged, the whole world celebrates with them. There is an engagement party you are invited to cause everyone just wants to share the bits and pieces of their happiness. You bring a small gift to celebrate.

2. You get a Save the Date with the day of the wedding. You get a link or a place where the couple is registered (aka, listed all of the gifts they need/want to receive for their wedding).

3. Couple sets the date, all is going according to the plan, you are getting invited to the Bridal Shower. You are bringing gifts to the bride-to-be and drink and have a good time.

4. If you are close - you are invited to a Bachelorette/Bachelor party. Could be something low-key on the spot or a destination one (Nashville is a hot place for Bachelor/Bachelorette parties right now). You bring a gift. In case this is a destination party - you pay for the ticket/gas/outfits/chip in for airbnb or hotel/spend money on drinks and entertainment as well as bring a gift.

5. Wedding invitation arrives in the mail. You now know where to be and at what time.

6. If you are in a Wedding Party: this is the time where you freak out cause you need to pay for a dress/tux and get it fitted and all that jazz.

7. The Wedding Shower. Yep, usually happens few weeks before the actual day of the wedding. You bring gifts from the registry and celebrate the upcoming wedding.

8. Rehearsal dinner. You come, you eat, you rehearse for the next day.

9. THE WEDDING DAY. You come, you eat, you have fun. And you bring gifts.

So, in short: I don’t know why some couples choose to go through this ‘cause let me honest here - it all sounds painful and oh so expensive. A wedding photographer alone will cost you about $3000.

The ceremonies are usually very pretty. No matter if they are held at a church or at the venue - I honestly enjoyed them all. A minister a couple knows or more often a friend of the couple ends up holding the ceremony which makes the occasion and scene very home-like. A catered meal, dancing, and getting trashed is on the menu after the ceremony. Throwing of the bouquet is a thing as well as father-daughter/son-mother dances. It is all very very cute. No entertainer (well, a band or DJ), so a little slow after the dinner for my Ukrainian soul.

Now, all of this is a more ‘traditional’ way to have a wedding in the US. It costs a lot for both guests and the newlyweds but it is hella pretty and memorable. Clearly, I am not a traditional kinda girl and am so lucky to be married to not-so traditional guy.

Best gift to give to American newlyweds: stuff from the registry. Stick to the list. Always, stick to the list.

I LOVED my own wedding. And I hope every single couple that gets married feels empowered to say the same after years of marriage. No matter how much money they spent or who hit whom in a drunk debacle.


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