The Romani people, who constitute one of Bulgaria’s largest ethnic minorities, have a unique marriage tradition – a ‘bride market’. Held four times a year on various religious holidays, the market is a chance for poor families in the community to arrange financially beneficial marriages for their children.
The families that gather in the city of Stara Zagora for the festival are part of a gypsy community of 18,000 Roma known as Kalaidzhi. They are traditionally coppersmiths, and among the most poverty-stricken people in the nation. The bride market is a chance for these families to get together, catch up on gossip, and arrange matches for their adolescent children. The event is a colorful one, with grannies dressed in traditional Kalaydzhii long skirts, and children running about and eating candyfloss.
The prospective brides are usually dressed provocatively in mini skirts, with gobs of mascara, flashy jewellery and towering heels. They dance alongside their male suitors on car hoods, which is quite rare in a community that generally does not allow youths to mingle with the opposite sex. In fact, the Kalaidzhi, who are devout Christians, take girls out of school at age 15 to keep them away from temptation.
The market, however, is a lot like a highschool dance. Girls and boys stand separately in groups, occasionally shaking hands and checking each other out. The parents, acting as chaperones, prefer to stay out of their way in the background. As the kids get to know each other better, the party gets wilder, with couples dancing on top of cars in front of an audience.
“I hope to meet new people and to see the parents of the boys, so our parents can meet him,” says Hristova, 19, who attended a market last year. “It’s a good tradition. It’s easier for us if our parents approve.”
“I want to find someone who is easy to get along with,” she added, taking a pause from dancing in high-heeled sandals – “someone whose parents won’t interfere after we are together, and someone who’s not too rich and not too poor and has a job.
If a boy and a girl really begin to take a liking for each other, the adults then step in to negotiate. The cost of a bride can be anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 leva ($2,800 and $5,600). The prices have dropped in recent years, as jobs have dried up and families are tight on cash. But a ‘very beautiful’ woman with many suitors can supposedly still command a really good price.
“We are maintaining the morals of the children by marrying them off at a young age,” said Kosta Kostov, a spectator at the fair. “If she’s not a virgin, the bride’s family has to give the money back.”
The bridal market tradition is quite an old one, spanning several generations. It used to take place in an open field next to a horse-trading market in a small village in Bulgaria. The brides-to-be would stand on stage, while suitors competed against each other for their hand. Last year, however, police decided to move the venue to the city in order to avoid tension with the horse traders.