Polish Weddings Project

A Special Report by Gene Mikrut

My personal research (and sometimes vague memories) on this project quickly made me realize that the term, "traditional Polish Wedding Music", did not apply to every Polish community in this country. Traditions could have varied from state to state or town to town. And in large metropolitan areas such as Chicago, traditions may have differed on the North Side, originally settled by prominent Polish business men who emigrated from large Polish cities. Traditions and music would vary again on the South Side, composed of both business and working class people who emigrated from the farm and mountain regions of Poland.

In the interest of accuracy and equal response from various areas in this country and Canada, I asked the same questions to members of the Spuscizna web site, two publishers of Polish news publications, as well as musicians who were prominent in the field of Polish dance and polka music. You will discover by the comments, everything is not right and everything is not wrong, just different.

Marsz Powitalny - The Polish Wedding March

Question: How many times was Polish Wedding March played at reception?

Comment: It was played for every meal serving during the reception. In a very few cases, it appears to have been played only one time, however for reasons I will explain later, playing the march only one time, probably occured at receptions during the sixties or later.

When I speak of the old traditional Polish Weddings, I refer to an era from the thirties to the early fifties, with our first and second generation Polish-Americans getting married in part of a large city that was settled by earlier generations of Polish people. The typical banquet facility had a tavern for daily use, which was connected to a two story ballroom or dance hall. The upper section of the hall was called the reception room, consisting of the dance area, stage,and bar area. Folding chairs and benches were placed along the walls of the reception room for the guests. The lower hall consisted of the dining room and kitchen area. Although the upper and lower sections were the same size, the area where the food was prepared could have taken up a third of the area, often making it impossible to serve everyone at one sitting. Using a time frame of 5:00 pm to midnight, just before five the bridal party would form a receiving line at the entrance to the hall. At five the bar would open and sometime shortly after that you had music. There were no seating charts or "tents", when it appeared as if the majority of the guests had arrived, the wedding party would join in to dance and drink, until such time that the cook informed someone that that they were ready to serve. The bride and groom and couples in the wedding party would line up in two, the band starts to play The Polish Wedding March, the wedding party will march at least two or three times around the hall, as the bride groom beckons those still seated to join in the march to the dining room. More often than not, those at the end of the march line will discover that there are no more seats in the dining room, so they go back to the reception area, the band is still playing so they dance and drink until the next serving which will be noted by the the band playing and the bridal party once again goes through The Polish Wedding March again. Depending on the size of the hall and amount of the guests, the Polish Wedding March routine could continue for up to four servings. The band usually ate during the second serving.

Only a few people said that the march was only played once, while the bridal party was being announced. I am going to take a guess that the reception was probably held in a one floor facility. with a postage stamp size dance floor, planned on a four hour schedule. Things still have changed. Today the Polish Wedding March is not played at receptions for the Baby Boomers kids. More one floor facilities now, a DJ will announce the wedding party,parents, bride and groom, to a more more modern type of Polish song. But still in keeping with the Polish tradition, during the cocktail hour it is very common to have a group Polish Highlander or Goral musicians consisting of string bass, two violins and accordion, who play at the entrance to the hall and before the DJ goes on, they finish off by strolling and playing among the seated guests.

Wykup - America Style

The Polish Wedding March was also played at wedding receptions in some areas of the country for a Polish custom known as the Wykup and was generally considered the grand march of the night. During the Wykup, a few banquet size long tables would be set up in front of the band stand or stage. Various types of whiskey, wine, and cigars would be placed on the table along with large china or porcelein dinner plates. Custom was that uncles of the bride would be seated at the opposite side of the table, no seats at front of the table.When the band started the march, the bridal party would once again march around the hall a few times ending up and forming a receiving line next to the table, to thank the guests and accept their gifts. Although everyone marched in the Wykup, the long white table was pretty much a man's thing. In the earlier days,the men would place a silver dollar on a plate, and then join one of the uncles of the bride in a drink, or take a cigar, then go back and join the march again. Some old timers indicated that as the silver dollars built up on a plate, there was an unwritten challenge to see what man could hit a plate full of silver dollars so hard with his silver dollar so it would cause the plate full of silver dollars to shatter. Now to determine how many times the Polish Wedding March may have been played at an old time pre-and WW2 Polish wedding. First of all, it would have been played at least two or three times as the people marched to the dining area. Wykups lasted an hour or more,during that hour, the band will play non-stop and play the Polish Wedding March at least twenty five times. You do the math. Strangely enough, not all people remembered the Wykup and the rest only remembered certain parts. The last time I played a wykup was in the sixties and the other members of my band, who were all at least ten years older that me, did not have the slightest idea of when they last played a wykup. For the most part I think that the Wykup died by the early forties, possibly the Great Depression made giving silver dollar after silver dollar too costly.

Wykup - Poland Style

When I inquired about the wykup tradition, Spuscizna member Grace Skowron, who was born in Poland and now lives in Canada, wrote to inform me that the wykup custom in Poland calls for him to load his car with cases of vodka. On his way to the church, he will be stopped by citizens at every intersection. At this point he is supposed to either offer them a drink a full bottle. This is all the information I had, but needing so many cases of vodka, that there was more of a cultural tradition here than just having a social drink with well wishers.

I looked up the word wykup in a Polish-American dictionary and the definition is "ransom" and that's exactly what it was. Quite possible,the wykup is a custom that may have originated in Poland's medival times. Actually the Polish-American wykup could be considered a form of ransom. The only difference is that the ransom is handled by the brides family, the male guests do the paying, and both the bride and groom are the benefactors.

Serdeczna Matko - Beloved Mother

Last Question: With the exception of it possibly being played at church, would Serdezna Matko have been played during any other part of the wedding day including reception?

In the fifties, it seem that I recall someone mentioning that they heard it played and sung at a wedding. I don't remember who told me, but it was obvious that if it was played it had to have been played at a specific time, which is why I asked the everyone that question. Most people felt that it was doubtful that it would have been played at any other place but the church.

Guess what? It was and is played at weddings! But there are some ground rules:

1. The song must be requested by the bride or her family.

2. The song is played at the bride's home as she leaves her home and enters the car or carriage for the church. Thanks to Grace Skowron of Manitoba and Joe Oberaitis of Florida for the examples they provided. Joe's most recent experience on this matter was last year involving a Florida wedding of a couple from Michigan.

I guess there are even exceptions to these ground rules. Don Ptak, who played trumpet with Li'l Wally, told me they actually played it at a reception. This was requested by the mothers of both the bride and groom. They intended to dance with the groom during the unveiling.

Thanks to everyone who gave me their input to these questions. Hopefully the music and words will be in the hands of the Spuscizna Group by Fall. There will information on the wedding songs but it will not be as detailed as I have described in this letter. Since all of you helped out on these questions, I wanted to share all of the information that I received.

Mikrut Wedding - Chicago, 1954

Well as long as I mentioned Polish weddings in metropolitan areas I figured that I will take some time to desribe the events leading to our wedding reception some fifty plus years ago. I list 1 and 2 as setting a church date then booking the hall date. However to some, a date at a specific church may be less important then having to book a different hall and vica versa.

1. Set church date and time

2. Select hall. At this period of time, most halls were attached to a tavern which catered to the everyday neighborhood trade. The owners either were not aware of how lucrative a one price package price could be (or simply were not interested because these were actually long hours) and owners were happy just to rent the facility - on the condition that bar beverages had to be purchase from the hall and the renter was responsible for the cost of missing, broken bar glasses, dishes, and kitchen utensils.

3. Book the band

4. Speak and contract with an old time neighborhood Polish wedding cook and her crew. You discuss anticipated amount of guests type of menu that she provides. She suggests that you order food items from the local merchants that you and your families have traded with. She gives you a list for the butcher, bakery, vegetable store, and list of canned items and other things from local grocery store. The cook informs you that she will be at the hall at 6am and has to have meat and fresh vegetables delivered by 7am.

5. We go with the lists to the individual merchants, basically they are our neighbors, who will be guests at the wedding. We do not try to negotiate any prices, we simply give them their list, ask if they can deliver it by the required time,and the cost.

6. Check with friends and relatives about putting in some time behind the bar plus a kid in the cloak room. No,problem, it seems that everyone wants to be a bartender.

7. Date of wedding arrives, ceremony scheduled for 11am go to hall at 8am to make sure everything is on schedule. Cook informs me everything is fine, she already took an inventory of the halls kitchen items, the hall is about two blocks from the church and the cook tells us to stop by after church before we go to the photography studio.

8. Check with the hall owner,we count the glasses,and stock. He has a price list for cases of beverages, an inventory will be made by him and I after the reception, and we will be credited for all unopened bottles.

9. After church we went to the hall with relatives from both sides of our families, figuring on having cake and coffee or some drinks from the bar. Much to my surprise, she had a complete meal ready for the wedding party and about thirty guests.

10. It was 1954, we had three hundred guests, our monetary gifts were usually between three and five dollars (ten dollars was considered a huge gift, probably from someone with a big family).As I recall we totaled about $1,200 in monetary gifts. The total cost of the reception was between $900 and a thousand dollars, with the remaining 200 to 300 dollars we were able to by a new gas range and bedroom set, for our two room unheated cold water apartment which we rented fourteen dollars a month, not including utilities.

Gene Mikrut

For the completed project, click: Polish Wedding Music .

Text by Gene Mikrut, Chicagoland USA 2008
Images by Karen Wisniewski, Metro Detroit USA 2008
Edited by Dennis Benarz, Chicagoland USA 2008