The following information originally appeared as part of a longer article on The Village, a Russian-language lifestyle publication. It has been adapted by SRAS and translated here by SRAS intern Mae Liou.
Gerda, a professional Russian wedding emcee:
People often ask me about this, so for some time now I’ve been aware of several different explanations. I like one of them best of all. The word “bride” (невеста), came from the word “unknown” (неизвестный). That is, either an unknown woman, or a woman who does not know (не ведает). In the past, as a rule, girls were not asked to consent to a marriage. They were frequently given in marriage to men with whom they were completely unacquainted – it was a more or less established tradition. The bride would say goodbye to her home, experience the bitterness of parting with her family, and await a new, unknown life. In his turn, the groom also said goodbye to the freedom of his bachelorhood. For this reason, the guests at a wedding empathized with the youth and urged the newly-married couple to soften this shared bitterness with a sweet kiss.
These days, some old traditions are hard for us to understand. For that reason, the majority of people at a wedding now accept a different explanation of the tradition. According to that version, the whole thing is about the taste of vodka, which guests must drink to the health of the bride and groom: vodka is bitter, and that’s where we get the cry “bitter”. The young couple must, with a kiss before the eyes of their guests, take the edge off this bitterness.
Note from SRAS Assistant Director, Josh Wilson: Another modern version of this has appeared in recent years. Vodka is now giving way in popularity among many Russians, particularly young Russians, to lighter forms of alcohol. Today, it is possible to find weddings where champagne is the major drink of choice (although vodka will most certainly be available). In response to this new development, the old mythology has been changed – some say that if the bride and groom do not truly love each other at a wedding, the champagne will taste bitter, not sweet. So, the guests will call “bitter” and the bride and groom have to prove their love with a kiss. Then, the guests will toast them with sweet champagne afterwards.
Gerda: There is yet another widespread version, which is popular on some forums dedicated to the subject: according to tradition, the bride offers a glass of vodka to each guest, and in response the guest, making a wry face and saying “bitter”, kisses the bride on the cheek. It’s clear that, in earlier times, only the people closest to the bride kissed her, and that their attitude to this kiss was different. But nowadays brides prefer not to follow this custom: you never know who might linger too long with their kiss. For this reason, brides no longer offer the glass this way – these days the vodka is just poured, guests stand together at the communal table, and everyone drinks up. In earlier times, wedding toasts also rolled off the tongue rather differently, but these days that is becoming a thing of the past. People love to just keep shouting «bitter!», not just once nor twice but many times, and also – to count. In this way the guests attempt to guess how many years the marriage will last, so it’s better to prolong each kiss as much as possible.
There’s a very beautiful explanation, according to which “bitter” (Горько) is actually a transformation of the unrelated but similar-sounding word for “hills” (Горки). Apparently this refers to the process of paying a bride-price. In earlier times, men wooed by the calendar, and most often wooed not in the middle of winter, but around Maslenitsa (the Russian “Butter Week”, celebrating the end of winter and advent of spring, celebrated the week before Lent – the Russian equivalent of Mardi Gras). On appointed days of the week, it was customary to go to different people’s homes for bliny – for example, to one’s sister-in-law one day, to one’s aunt another. And on one strictly specified day men went courting. If a girl was on the marriage market, her girlfriends met her suitor on a specially-built hill outside her home. One of the men’s tasks was to pull the girls down from the hill. Of course, while the guys were pulling, they also attempted to kiss the girls, and while this happened the older generation would supposedly shout “hill!”…