Sami Weddings and other traditions

I recently wrote about expectations for my Arctic/Northern Lights trip. I’m back now and have some cool things to report. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the aurora – there are no guarantees you will see the phenomena, and that’s just how it goes sometimes. But I did have some other wonderful experiences, and one of them was learning about the Sami people.

The indigenous people of Northern Norway (as well as Sweden, Finland and into parts of Russia) have managed to maintain only a few ancient traditions, after being converted to Christianity about 400 years ago. These industrious folks have been living in the arctic regions for about five thousand years – but surviving and thriving in such an extreme climate afforded them no time to develop a written language. Customs, beliefs, and stories were passed down through oral tradition, and that is why, sadly, they do not know as much about their history as they would wish.

During one excursion, our Sami guide announced that he would be providing information on their clothing, their traditional singing, and weddings.  Weddings?! You can imagine my surprise and joy when he announced that topic! This is one of the few rituals that has survived.

Our Sami guide.

I learned that it is very difficult for a young man to find a young woman to marry. A family still living in the old ways, with the reindeer herd, fishing and trapping, and all the other activities necessary to live in the north, prefers to keep a young man at home. But mom also realizes that her son can’t stay home forever. So how does he find a potential wife? Most often at church, one of the few places to meet someone outside one’s immediate family. If a couple begins a relationship, they don’t get see much of each other, but when the time comes to take the next step, the traditions really kick in.

To propose, the reindeer are hooked up to the sleds and they proceed, with the groom and his best friend in the first sled, followed by family members in order of importance (parents next, etc.). They ride to the women’s lavvo (tent-like dwelling) and encircle it three times. Then the best friend enters the dwelling and asks the young woman if she will say accept his friends propose. If the answer is yes, she comes out, unhooks one of the reindeer from its harness, and ties the animal to his sled. If his proposal is rejected, the friend simply comes back out alone, much to the man’s disappointment. This is still done today with reindeer herding families, but it is also sometimes done with cars. The woman comes out of her house and takes the key out of the ignition, puts it in her pocket, signaling yes, this car is now hers to share ownership. I inquired about same-sex couples and was told that they probably did not accept that for marriage, historically, but today, absolutely yes, no problem. Norway is a progressive place.

The 'lavvo'

The Sami are a very egalitarian society, with women holding leadership roles along with men, and working with the reindeer and everything else that needs to be done in their harsh climate.

The wedding itself is a massive affair. The celebration provides an opportunity for Sami near and far to gather, and today, outsiders are welcome too. A small Sami wedding is about 500 people, a more typical number is over a thousand! And of course, the celebration lasts for three days. I would expect no less. For this reason, couples often put off marriage, since the expense of such a large party is great.

Our guide was a 30-year old Sami guy, with a master’s degree in economics, who had returned to help the family with their herd and be a guide for us tourists. He told me he was not ready to marry yet, because he couldn’t afford to do so, although he hopes to one day. His family, generations of reindeer herders, represents part of only 10% of Sami people who live and work today in the old ways.  Most Sami are living a modern life just like any other Norwegian.

The traditional Sami food is a simple reindeer soup or stew with potatoes and carrots, along with hot beverages and lots of bread.

The reindeer sleigh ride

Another fun discovery I want to share was back in the town ofTromsø;I found ‘love locks’ on a bridge. It’s interesting how this engagement custom has spread around the world. I wrote about this a few years ago, noting how in Paris, padlocks on the Pont des Arts so weighed down the bride, the city had to remove them because the bridge was collapsing. I also saw love locks in Lisbon, and I’ll bet you can find them on many bridges everywhere, around the world.

I always love learning about wedding traditions around the world and sharing them here. Whether or not you follow your cultural traditions, you still might find inspiration if you dig into your background and find a way to infuse some of that character into your own engagement and wedding experience. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to meet and learn about the Sami people, and discover the stark beauty of the arctic.

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