Photograph by Aleksandar Donev
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The flag carrier, or bajraktarot, leads the bride and her family to the house of the groom during the annual wedding festival in Galičnik, Macedonia.

Photograph by Aleksandar Donev

Look Inside Europe's Most Traditional Wedding Festival

Every year, a tiny mountain community in Macedonia celebrates the union of one special couple.

On Sunday morning, hours before the conclusion of the annual wedding festival in the village of Galičnik, Macedonia, the bridegroom and his groomsmen head into the forest to deliver the ceremony’s final invitations. It’s mid-July and the group is dressed in heavy tunics and white wool trousers, and accompanied by musicians blowing wooden horns and beating drums. They walk single file along a narrow trail to the graveyard with a bottle of rakija, the local grappa, and a tray of shot glasses. Surrounding a headstone set in a clearing among the trees, the wedding party—already two long, hot nights into the festivities—drink the liqueur, pour some atop the grave, light religious candles, and cajole their deceased relatives to attend the celebration’s consummation.

Like nearly every ritual and custom on display during the two-and-a-half-day gathering—held this year on July 14 and 15—summoning spirits from the past defies most metrics of modern logic. But for countrymen, thousands in the diaspora, and travelers who will make the pilgrimage to this quiet community tucked into the mountains on Macedonia’s western edge, the yearly reacquaintance with a decidedly antiquated heritage makes the celebration special. The beauty lies in taking the time to readjust and re-secure a tenuous grip on tradition and culture.

The festival began last century after several generations from Galičnik had migrated from the village. They did not, however, forget their roots. Every summer around the celebration for the settlement’s patron, St. Peter’s Day (July 12 on the Orthodox Christian calendar), residents returned to find their potential lifelong partners and better halves. Today, throngs travel from around the world to help join a new couple—which qualify to be married here by having a family connection to the village—in matrimony while also paying tribute to their ancestors and honoring the landscape that formed them.

“People who enjoyed their lives and lived a simple life always crave for their roots—whether it is to check in with people from their community, practice their traditions, or be reminded of the place that brought peace in their hearts,” says Tanja Lepcheska, whose paternal grandfather is from the village, which today has only two year-round residents. “In the past, as my grandmother says, the wedding celebration would last a week, with every day a different protocol. Since the 1950s, we have gathered the most important customs to around 25 rituals to provide a story so people can understand what is going on.”

The festivities unofficially start on Friday night with the equivalent of a stag party for the groom (much of the village—men and women—are in attendance). Then, from Saturday until the church ceremony on Sunday, a program of spectacles and events begins. The schedule includes the traditional dance by the groom’s mother, the bride filling a pitcher at the three fountains, “fetching” the bride from her home, welcoming the marriage brokers, and saying farewell to the musicians.

“Today, the celebration is supported by the ministry of culture, the president of Macedonia, and ambassadors,” says Marko Bekrić, who guides biking and hiking tours from Galičnik, and helps run the family restaurant and lodge. “But it is also important for visitors because the ceremony and customs are rare and unique—and because all travelers should hear the pipes and drums, see the horses, and feel the spiritual tradition.”