Old Marriage Customs in Finland

June Pelo

At times while doing genealogy research, I've noticed that young couples married at a very young age and wondered if there was an error in the dates. Recently I read that the minimum marriage age was set in the Ecclesiastic Law of 1686. It was 14 for boys and 13 for girls in the 16th century. In 1721 it was raised to 21 and 15 respectively, but the sons of peasants were permitted to marry at age 18 and this was effective until 1922. Since 1911 girls have been allowed to marry at age 17. Girls under the age of 20 weren't considered mature enough for marriage, but by age 25 a girl was looked upon as an old maid.

The opportunities for young people to get acquainted were limited. The busiest times were between Easter and Midsummer, and between Michaelmas and Christmas. There were also various church holidays and festivals. Village young people also met during their work and at evening socials. When bicycles came along, young people had more opportunities to meet. "Bundling" or gadding about at night was known throughout the country. These escapades were also known in most of northern and central Europe and the Baltic countries.

Young people needed the consent of their parents before they could marry. If they married against their parents' wishes, they could not expect a dowry or inheritance. After 1864 a 21-year-old could marry anyone without consent.

A formal proposal of marriage was preceeded by a discreet inquiry to ensure it would not meet rejection. The proposal was usually made in the evening and unknown to an outsider, except in Karelia where it was a village affair with lots of festivity. The suitor was accompanied by a spokesman; in western Finland this was an older person and a family friend. In Karelia it was the suitor's father or a relative. The farm owners in southwest Finland hired a professional spokesman. The spokesman presented the case in a traditional custom known throughout Scandinavia and Europe. When the girl made her appearance, a bottle of spirits and gifts were handed over. In Karelia, gifts were money, a ring, scarf, etc. Receiving gifts didn't mean a binding acceptance, because the gifts could be returned if the suit was rejected. If the answer was favorable, the girl and her parents visited the suitor's home. The future daughter-in-law might also stay for a week and help with the household work.

Betrothal and Marriage Banns

Betrothal gifts were money, goods, clothes, etc. and in the 17th century it could be silver goblets. Rings weren't used until the 18th century in western Finland, and not until the early 19th century in eastern Finland. Later the young people traveled into town together to buy rings and a silken scarf. In most cases the betrothal period was six months.

According to the ecclesiastic order of 1571 the banns had to be published before a betrothal. The betrothal was made in the presence of a pastor. In western Finland a party was held on the first day the banns were published. In eastern Finland it was customary to hold both betrothal and banns parties.

Under the Ecclesiastic Law of 1686 a betrothal was legally binding and could be broken off only by consent of the Church. The guilty party then might have to pay a fine and a guilty suitor had to return the gifts. In western Finland when banns were published (from the 18th century on), the bridal couple was given a small silver stick and a crutch to express that the couple had been "cast" from the pulpit and had in the process "broken their legs".

According to an tradition, a betrothed woman in Finland was called a maiden or bride; in Karelia she was also "something to be given away." Upon marriage she became a young wife. These terms were used until the birth of the first child. Among the landless rural people, the betrothal consisted of a journey to town or market to buy wedding rings. Then they visited the parsonage to take out banns. In the 1880s the town people began announcing betrothals in the newspapers.

Preparing for Marriage

It used to be the custom after the banns were read for the first time for the bride and an older woman to visit her relatives and neighbors. The purpose was to collect gifts, usually linen, wool, cloth, and money. Then she was assisted by other girls to make gifts to be given to the bridegroom's relatives and guests during the marriage feast. As early as the 17th century attempts were made to restrict the visits for gifts to the bride's home parish. In the 19th century the parish began to prohibit this practice. It was already going out of use in western Finland and was observed only by the servants and landless. In eastern Finland the custom was still followed to the 1930s.

In western Finland the wedding house was decorated with triumphal arches, maypole and flags. The walls of the feast room were covered with white drapes, woven fabrics and mirrors, garlands and wreaths. The Swedish Finns and some Finns in southern Ostrobothnia suspended a bridal canopy from the ceiling. This was done when the couple was married in the bride's home.

It was still customary in the 19th century for the bride, and sometimes the groom, to take a sauna bath in the evening before the marriage day. In the southwest the bride bathed with other girls, but sometimes with the groom. In parts of Karelia similar customs were followed with laments and leave-taking ceremonies.

Wedding Customs

From the 17th century weddings were usually held in October, November and December. But in Åland the most popular month was January. In 1821 summer weddings became popular. In 1955-1971 the most popular wedding months were June, July, August and December. Peasant weddings usually lasted 2-3 days. It was an old tradition that weddings should begin while the moon was waxing, and in the western regions preferably on a Tuesday or Thursday.

In eastern Finland marriages of old consisted of two parts: a leaving party at the bride's home and the wedding feast in the bridegroom's home. This custom continued up to the 20th century. In western Finland and northern Ostrobothnia the actual marriage ceremony took place in either home. In southern and northern Ostrobothnia it was the custom to drive from the bride's home to the parsonage or church, returning to the wedding house after the ceremony. In central Ostrobothnia, the marriage and wedding feast were held in the bridgegroom's house.

According to ancient tradition, the first part of the wedding was held at the bride's home. The relatives of the bride and groom gathered in separate groups. The groom's party set out for the bride's home in the evening. Two of them went ahead as peace-seekers. When the groom's party arrived, their spokesman proclaimed his mission. The groom then had to seek out the bride, who didn't immediately appear. After a joint meal they went to the groom's home where the wedding festivities began that same night. This custom was best preserved in eastern Finland and Karelia.

The leaving ceremoney involved several rituals. The bride was handed over with the shaking of hands, gifts, the dressing of the bride's hair and the donning of the married woman's headdress. Thus the bride was a married woman. These customs are observed in Russian Karelia.

The main parts of the wedding were the marriage ceremony, the wedding feast and the wedding dance. The marriage took place in the wedding room, in the center of which stood two stools on a rya rug. During the ceremony the bridesmaids and pages (2-4 pairs) held a red (or white) canopy over the heads of the couple.

Brides in the 18th and 19th centuries were married in their local costumes. In the 19th century they began to wear dark dresses, usually black. White wedding dresses began to appear in the early decades of the 20th century. From the time of the middle ages the brides wore a silver crown. Then in western Finland in the 18th century they used a high spangled crown. In the final decades of the 19th century the high crown went out of use and brides wore a myrtle wreath and long white veil. The small metal crown with a veil reappeared in the 20th century.

After the ceremony the guests were served wine and a toast was drunk to the couple. At larger weddings the meal was prepared by professional cooks and served by waitresses. Up to the 20th century the guests sat at long tables.Wedding guests The bridal couple, attendants and pastor sat at the head table. At the turn of the century it became the custom to provide a buffet with little tables for the guests to sit at. The meal lasted from 4-8 hours. There were numerous courses and the meal ended with coffee. In the 18th century during the feast, a collection was taken for the parish poor.

Then the dancing began. The bride and groom were first to take the floor. Then the male guests danced with the bride. In Ostrobothnia the bride was given money after the dance, and the giver was served spirits. Then the bride took off her crown (in western Finland) or her veil (in eastern Finland).

Wedding guests in Tjöck 1902. Photo Ina Roos

The trip to the groom's house consisted of a procession headed by the bridal pair, followed by the spokesman and bridal attendants, folk musicians and wedding guests. In olden days the bride's head and upper body were covered by a veil. The bride brought her chest full of presents for the groom's relatives. In some places it was the custom after the arrival to lift the bride onto a cushion or mat and carry her into the house. If you have access to the Internet, you can see a wedding procession in Tjöck at http://sydaby.eget.net/swe/brollop.htm The site is written in Swedish but it has some marvelous pictures of the bridal procession, the traditional bridal clothing, the bride is wearing the high crown headdress, and there are some views of the decorated wedding chamber.Wedding procession The wedding in Tjöck was of Pia Teir and Kjell Erlands. There are also some photos of the wedding between Gunilla Malm and Anders Söderlund in 1992. There's also another interesting web site about museums in Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia at: http://museum.svof.fi/index.htm. It's full of interesting photos.


Wedding procession in Tjöck 1992. Photo Olle Haavisto

The reception was followed by a meal and dancing. On the first evening the bridal couple was brought to the bridal bed. This custom wasn't widespread in western Finland and went out of use. Instead, the couple departed while the dancing continued. They were usually taken to one of the buildings on the property where people slept during the summer months.

The next morning the bride's headdress and dress were changed. A married woman had to keep her head covered, as demanded by the Bible. This custom went out of fashion in western Finland and the old costumes and headdresses were abandoned. (My maternal grandmother always wore a white cap, even after she emigrated to America.) In southeast Finland it was customary to put a small boy in the young wife's lap on the second day, and she was told "to make one of her own".

Throughout Finland on the second day it was customary for the young wife to distribute presents to her husband, his parents and relatives; her mother-in-law received the most. This custom continued in eastern Finland. In western Finland the presents were given to the groom and his family before the wedding, or when the banns were published. In Ostrobothnia the gifts were given after the wedding. They usually consisted of clothing such as smocks, stockings, gloves, handkerchiefs, etc.

At the end of the wedding feast on the third day, the young couple and guests drove to church. In Åland this was usually on Sunday. In southern Ostrobothnia the sauna was heated at the end of the wedding for all the guests. One of the items for the final meal in the Swedish-speaking areas of Ostrobothnia was blood sausage. In southeastern Finland it was pea soup

The provincial laws of the Sweden mentioned the old tradition of a husband's morning gift to his wife. This custom was known in western Finland, but unknown in eastern Finland. The gifts were usually clothes, animals, money, meadows, etc.

The differences between wedding traditions in eastern and western Finland were due to the ways and times the church marriage ceremony was adapted to the local custom. Western Finland was influenced by Swedish-Germanic tradition. In eastern Finland, especially Karelia, a Russian influence brought differences.

In eastern Finland the wedding was a family celebration, while in western Finland it was an occasion when the families of the bridegroom and bride were able to show their status to the rest of the village community. This latter tradition survives most strongly in the traditional grand wedding found in Ostrobothnia.

Many of the old traditions have been preserved, even though church weddings were not fashionable during the 1960s and 1970s when a civil wedding was typical among the young. Couples who lived together in civic matrimony for years now consecrate their union in church with the arrival of their child. Even though marriage has lost its social and judicial significance, church weddings have acquired a new revival.

After the Wedding

The bride's dowry was sometimes part of the wedding procession. It consisted of personal property (tools, a bed, chest), clothes, money and animals (cows, a sheep). In western Finland a dowry was regarded as the girl's share of the family inheritance. In eastern Finland it was her full inheritance.

It was customary for the young wife to return a couple weeks after the wedding to her parents for 3-4 weeks. During this time she did handwork, etc. It seems this visit tied in with her pregnancy. She was called a bride until her first child was born. It was also customary for the bride's parents to visit her after the birth of a new child.

Silver and Golden Weddings

It's a recent custom to celebrate silver and golden weddings in Finland. Golden weddings were celebrated in the mid-18th century and silver weddings in the 19th century, but this was generally a custom of city dwellers and the gentry. In the 20th century these celebrations spread to other classes of society. They are mainly family events.

The likelihood that a married couple will celebrate a silver or golden wedding anniversary has dropped in the past decades. The number of divorces has doubled since the 1970s and nearly half the marriages held today will end in divorce.

Excerpts from "Finnish Folk Culture" by Ilmar Talve.

June Pelo


Silverbröllop i Tjöck

Spelmanstraditioner i Österbotten

Tjöck folkdräkt  

Tjöck folkdräkt collage with photographs by Ina Roos from the early 1900s