Imagine it’s Saturday and you are spending your summer in Croatia. You are enjoying life, so far so good. Then, suddenly, you see a whole bunch of loud people walking around dressed all fancy. What is that, you wonder? Haha, welcome to a Croatian wedding!
It can easily happen that when in Croatia, you witness big traditional wedding parties walking or driving through the location you are based at. Or maybe you are even lucky enough to get invited to a Croatian wedding. In any case, living abroad, I have noticed that those festivities are quite different to what is common in the rest of the world, which often leads to visitors asking themselves ‘what the heck are those people doing and why are they doing this?’.
Now here I am trying to shed some light on this mystery and walk you through a traditional Croatian wedding experience, based on a real-life example (my brother got married in a traditional way on the island of Vis this summer!)
Traditional Croatian weddings are usually quite big, starting at approx. 80 and going up to 300 persons. This is mostly due to large family sizes. If you invite one family member, you need to invite all of them. It is just polite. On top of that, Croatians just love to party and having a good time, so many friends get invited as well.
Depending on who invites you, the groom or the bride, you will start the wedding day at different locations. This information however, will never be part of the official invitation card. The invitation will just indicate the time and location of the ceremony as well as the restaurant location, where the after-party takes place. Hence do not make the mistake of thinking you got all day to get ready! All the other pre-party information you will receive from the couple several days before the wedding. From my experience, it is better fun if you are invited by the groom, that’s why I am going to focus on this side of the story 🙂
The groom’s place aka first pre-party.
So basically, you would be invited to show up at the groom’s place around 2pm in the afternoon. Please do not take this time too serious. In Croatia, we do not expect guests to be on time at such events. It is just an indication. Being half an hour late is not only okay, we are even counting on you being late (some guests showed up to my brother’s wedding on time and what can I say: my mum was shocked and I wasn’t even close to be ready haha).
As the pre-festivities mostly take place in the groom’s house and garden, the hosts have tons of work to do before the guests arrive. Decorations, food and drinks need to be ready. This is commonly all provided and prepared by the groom’s family themselves, so we should appreciate. Not only do all of the groom’s guests arrive at his house, but so does a traditional band as well.
Tamburaši and rakija.
We call the traditional band ‘tamburaši’ (english: ‘tamburitza players’). It is 4-5 persons who all come with different instruments, from classical guitars to traditional tamburitzas. Their job for the day is to accompany the festivities with traditional songs and make everybody dance and feel good. You spend a good 1-2 hours at the groom’s place listening to the music, eating and getting a little bit tipsy with the local ‘rakija’, which everybody is sharing. You will recognize it by the typical bottle decoration: There is always a Croatian coloured band around it (colours are red, white and blue). Sometimes there is even the Croatian checkered emblem on it. Standard flasks are also common.
Caution: if you have too much of it, you might not make it to the ceremony (it is really strong with around 50% alcohol). Most of the songs played by the band are quite well-knowns and have very emotional texts. Combined with the rakija, don’t be surprised if the Croatian guests start dancing, screaming the words and hugging each other emotionally.
Another typical thing to have is a so called ‘barjaktar’ (english: flag carrier). This is somebody the groom trusts a lot, who is carrying the Croatian flag throughout the whole day. After 1-2 hours, once the guests are happy and little bit tipsy, the whole wedding party starts to go direction bride’s place. In small towns this may happen either walking or with a car convoy in bigger cities. If you did not come by car, no worries, there is always some space in somebody’s car for you. In both cases, the flag carrier is always up front, followed by the band. The walking / driving is also an opportunity to further drink and dance. Hence, as a tourist, don’t be surprised if you notice honking cars at red traffic lights with people outside of the cars getting drunk in suits 😉
The bride’s place aka second pre-party.
Once the whole party arrives at the bride’s place, the groom goes towards her door to pick her up. Usually this is not as easy as it sounds. Very often, negotiations with the bride’s father are necessary, which of course are accompanied by music and drinks. It is very common that the bride’s family sends out a fake bride (mostly a guy with a white blanket over his head) if they are not satisfied with how the negotiations are going. Once the groom and his best man finally succeed in negotiating (we don’t do money here, in most cases it is some funny games or requests), the real bride comes out to greet her groom and party with the crowd as well.
At this point, both wedding parties, the groom’s and the bride’s meet for the first time. And guess what, yes, the groom gets to see his bride in her dress before the wedding. We do not consider this bad luck in Croatia. The important thing to know for you as guest is another tradition: Every wedding guest will receive a little decoration sticked to his/ her outfit that is typically consisting of a little rosemary twig with the Croatian band around it. At more modern weddings, female guests get a bracelet instead, so their dresses aren’t ruined. You will get this from either the flower girls or the bridesmaid. They do it in order to officially mark you as part of the wedding party. It is common to give a small money donation to them in return.
The party at the bride’s place will go on for about another hour of eating, drinking and dancing before the whole wedding party makes its way to the church together. Once you enter the church, especially as a lady you should make sure that your shoulders are covered with a scarf. The ceremony is usually catholic (over 90% of Croatians are catholic) and takes about 30-40 minutes. Everybody is pulling of a serious face, pretending not to be drunk already haha. After the ceremony, the wedding party leaves the church to wait for the newlyweds outside. Another tradition is to throw rice at the newly married couple. Many couples try to avoid this tradition however, to avoid rice in their hair. A new trend instead, are flowers or bursting bubbles.
Once the couple is outside, each and every guest should cue and walk up to them to congratulate – the official part of the wedding is now over.
The real party.
The couple would mostly go and take their wedding pictures now, while the wedding party makes their way to the restaurant for the ‘real’ party, which will usually go on until the early morning. If you made it to the restaurant, congratulations, you have survived the toughest part. Now just relax, enjoy the drinks and amazing food, while chit-chatting with other guests and dancing until the morning.
The preparation aka what to gift the newlyweds.
This is an easy one in Croatia. We gift money in almost every case. Make sure to have an envelope with a nice card and enough gift money inside. It should approximately cover the restaurant cost for yourself and your companion. If you are not sure about the amount, you can always ask or google before attending the wedding. It is necessary to bring the envelope to the restaurant. There will be either a box in which you can put your envelope. Alternatively, at very traditional weddings, there will be a gifting ceremony some time after midnight, announced by the organizators. That is when you hand the envelope over to the couple giving them your best wishes. And this is when you officially survived your first Croatian wedding!