15 September 2008

Women: Romany Wedding Ceremony

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

In any culture, one of the highlights in a woman's life is her wedding day. The rites and rituals associated with the wedding ceremony across different cultures and across time make fascinating study. The Romany people (aka "Gypsies") prize purity in the bride and even attach a "bride price" to the negotiation between the families of the prospective bride and groom. Similar to a dowry in other cultures, the bride price is paid by the family of the groom to the family of the bride as compensation for the loss of their daughter.

The wedding ceremony, called the abiav, is rich in symbolism but devoid of religious significance, and is as varied as there are different Roma tribes. The ceremony is followed by feasting and celebration, at the conclusion of which the bride leaves the home she has always known and becomes part of her new husband's family and tribe.

The following excerpt from STOLEN PROMISE (Medallion Press, March 2010) features a description of a Romany wedding ceremony circa 1800, based upon historical research. (Please note that in this excerpt, Evan has been coerced into the marriage and, as a result, he is not the typical besotted groom usually found under these circumstances).

Their wedding day was warm, with a freshening breeze. A meadow near the camp provided an idyllic setting for the ceremony. A placid stream gurgled beneath large shade trees under a sky so blue and bright it seemed to mock her. She could hear a dog whining in the distance, and the laughter of children. The aroma of spices and roasting rabbits drifted on the air. For most in camp, the worst day of her life was an ordinary day like any other.

Jade stood swathed in a satin dress the color of fresh blood, a gossamer scarf of scarlet shot with gold threads wound around her throat. As a Roma woman, her wedding was the rare occasion where she would wear red. The color was usually considered unlucky. How more unlucky could she be? She was about to be married to a man who despised her and planned to abandon her at the first chance. Even worse, she had fallen in love with him.

She felt Evan's stiff-backed presence beside her as they stood together before her father. She did not have the heart to look directly at Evan. She felt numb and hollow, as if the ceremony about to take place signified grief and despair rather than joyous union. She should have broken with tradition and worn white, the color reserved for mourning.

Jade raised her chin. If Evan could stand beside her and endure this torture, she could, too. Her friend Starlina drifted to stand to her right while Liberina took her place beside Evan. Starlina held a silken white cord and a gleaming knife with an ornate handle. Liberina clutched a bundle of twigs from seven different types of trees in her hand. After selecting a weather scrubbed, gnarled branch from the bunch, Liberina handed it to Milosh.

"I will now tell you the meaning of the marriage bond," he said. He snapped the twig and tossed it into the wind, his face somber. Liberina chose another branch and placed it in his hand.

"You must not break this pledge," Milosh said. "It must live on between you and be buried with you." He broke the second branch and scattered the fragments.

She blocked out the drone of her father's voice and the significance of the words as he continued to speak and snap branches. The words meant nothing to Evan, who had called the ceremony 'heathen.' At this very moment he was probably dismissing the ritual as a savage, primitive rite and planning his escape.

Jade was escorted to a wagon painted bright yellow with white trim. She found a basket containing a small loaf of bread, a bag of coarse sea salt, and the bucket of water she had filled from the stream earlier that morning.

Returning with the items, she placed the basket and bucket at Evan's feet. Milosh quietly coached Evan, who withdraw a small tin cup from his pocket and filled it from the contents of Jade's bucket. They had reached the moment when they would drink from the same cup as man and wife, for only this one time in their lives.

Jade turned to face Evan. He was scrubbed, groomed and handsome in borrowed black trousers and a dark gray shirt whose sleeves were decorated with hand sewn ribbons of blue and silver. His hair was gathered at the nape with a strip of leather.

He sipped from the small vessel and held it out to her, his jaw rigid. She lifted her eyes to his and nearly dropped the cup as she took it from him. The gaze resting on her was cold steel. The planes of his face were hollow with displeasure. She closed her eyes as she choked down a gulp of the tepid water, opening them again when Milosh murmured his next instruction.

Evan snatched the cup from Jade's unsteady hand and ground it beneath his boot. Jade looked down at the bright bit of metal lodged in the soft brown earth, feeling as if her heart had been crushed beneath the brown leather.

"Abiav," Milosh said solemnly.

The mingling of the blood.

Jade glanced at Evan. A flicker of emotion passed over his face and was quickly suppressed. She guarded her own expression. He would interpret even a small smile as proof of her guilt. She was a bride with no reason to smile on her wedding day.

Evan turned his attention to Milosh. Without being told to, he extended his right arm palm up as Starlina placed the knife in Milosh's hand. Milosh made a shallow cut on Evan’s exposed wrist using the long ceremonial blade. Jade stared dully at the thin red line of blood. Milosh took her wrist in his hand and made a similar cut. It stung, and she felt faint as Milosh grasped Evan’s arm and joined Evan's wound to her own, causing their blood to mingle.

Starlina handed the silk cord to Milosh. He took Jade's wrist and bound it to Evan's with the soft white cord, wrapping the length around their joined wrists. He sealed the bond with three knots.

"One knot is for constancy, one is for fertility, and one is for long life," Milosh intoned as he secured the final knot.

With their wrists bound together, they were forced to stand close to each other. Jade could feel the thrum of Evan's pulse beating against her own, and the power of the well-muscled arm pressing against her. She inhaled his familiar tobacco and bay rum scent, recalling what it felt like to be held in his arms. She leaned into him, heat fanning from her core in a molten flare. He leveled an icy stare at her, stiffened, and pulled away.

A muscle twitched in Evan's cheek as Milosh slowly untied the cord binding them. Once free, Evan quickly separated himself from Jade. Milosh retrieved the loaf of bread from the basket, broke the small loaf of bread in half and gave them each a portion to eat. Jade choked on the dry bread, while Evan displayed even, white teeth as he chewed viciously.

Milosh broke the remainder of the loaf over their heads, scattering the pieces on the ground. He returned to the basket to fetch the bag of sea salt, and instructed them to each take a handful of the salt and toss it over their left shoulders. Evan gathered the salt in both hands and flung it over each shoulder, answering Milosh's censorial glower with a defiant smile. Starlina cut the silk cord stained with rusty ribbons of their blood into two pieces and handed the cords to Milosh.

"The threads must be kept for two years," Milosh told them as he handed a section of the cord to each. "After that time, if you wish to divorce, you must present the cord."

"But only the elder who performed the marriage is eligible to dissolve it," Evan observed in an arch tone.

"So you do know our customs," Milosh said, laughter rumbling in his massive chest.

Evan lifted his hand as if to fling the cord to the ground. Instead, he stopped and handed it to Jade. "I will have no need of it," he said.

Now married as securely as any Roma couple, Evan and Jade were allowed to freely roam the encampment. Liberina kissed Jade and offered shy congratulations to Evan before disappearing in the direction of her father’s wagon. Dimitri pointedly ignored the newlyweds, but was seen trudging toward the far end of the encampment dragging a barrel of beer as consolation.

A feast had been prepared in their honor. Fires blazed from newly dug pits, and jugs of beer and brandy were scattered throughout the camp. The aromas of roasting pig, rabbit, and hedgehog mingled with boiled cabbage and potatoes seasoned with garlic and rosemary. Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding their union, those in camp treated them like any other newly married couple, bestowing token cash gifts upon them, along with the traditional blessing:

"From me, a little money, but may God give you plenty."