Monday, June 9, 2014

Across the Board: Greek Wedding Traditions (Part 1)

LoL, so I have to start this post with a laugh at the power of the internet to distract us, even when we have a mission in mind. Today, I decided to "research" and write about Greek Wedding Traditions, inspired by an upcoming Greek wedding at which I'll be working. First, I considered what I already knew- not much, but mainly what the movies of my generation deemed I should know. I quickly relived and re-loved My Big Fat Greek Wedding through the trailer and 'best bits' I found online, and found out that there's a sequel in the works, set 10 years into the marriage of Toula & Ian Miller. Can't wait! 
Then, I considered the movie Mamma Mia, with its breathtaking views of the Greek island of Kalokairi, its sweet & fun scenes of Sophie & Sky's wedding, all of the high-energy ABBA songs, and of course, the memorable & loving morning prep routine of Sophie and her Mom the day of the wedding. 

I focused my thoughts on what I knew about Greek Weddings and Greek families- It seemed that many family members had the same/similar names (confusing to me), families are close-knit and are made up of many loud, plate-breaking, hungry, history-sharing, strong-willed, funny, accented, traditional, religious and sometimes overwhelming individuals. Oh, and Greece is beautiful. 

I found a few examples of Greek Orthodox weddings online (2 in Europe and 1 in the US). I loved seeing the unique customs, thinking about the symbolism and the history, while also noting the similarities between Greek Weddings and other weddings I've already learned about in the Weddings Across the Board series of posts.  The sugared almonds, the groom bringing the bride's bouquet, the hora and other similar dances, the abundance of music, of dancing and of love. Weddings are truly amazing celebrations across the board and in Greece, this is no exception. 

See these great wedding videos before or after you read on:
Chris & Crisso's beautiful Birmingham wedding (Note: This is in Birmingham, England)

After I built up enough curiosity and hit the web for answers, here's what I found out. Of course, we know that wedding customs and traditions vary slightly in different regions, in different religions, in different families and in different time periods. Some of these customs are very common in most Greek weddings today, and some may be less prevalent. I honor, respect and revel in the chance to learn how others celebrate, and hope that this post brings you knowledge, enlightenment, instruction and inspiration--whatever you're looking for. For me, I'll go into a wedding next weekend feeling informed and prepared for whatever different (and "strange", to some) things may happen. That being said, if you know more on the topic than I do (which is quite likely), leave a comment, teach us all something new, and consider sharing a Greek wedding experience that you've had! It's more than welcome, and so are you :) 

About Greek Culture & Greek Weddings:
Greece has a rich history, and many of its traditions stem from the importance of religion. Since 312 A.D., the Greek Orthodox Church has been a major influence in everyday Greek Life. Approximately 98 percent of Greece's population belongs to this church (wow!) and many of the culture's traditional celebrations center around sacramental services in the church, from birth and birthdays to marriage to death. This keeps people's lives firmly rooted in the church and in Greek culture. 
   Family is also at the core of many Greek cultural traditions, and gender also plays an important role in the family dynamic, as males have historically been more visible in the public eye (though this has begun to change in the past few decades). Because family is so important in Greek culture, it's expected that children will get married, and they typically do so in big celebrations full of socializing, food, music and dancing. 
   In Greece, your name is important because it links you to both family and the church. In each generation and branch of the family tree, the eldest grandson is named after his grandfather, and the eldest granddaughter is named after her grandmother. Therefore, if a couple has 6 children- and 3 go on to have male children first, while the other 3 go on to have girls first, all 6 cousins will share 2 names. This is an ancient tradition that ensures the continuation of a family name. For Greeks, regardless of how old you are, Name Day is an important celebration (often involving an open house, food and dancing) because it ties you to your namesake saint, which Orthodox Christians believe brings you closer to God. Those who have local or foreign names not associated with saints may celebrate on All Saints' Day instead.
   As Toula's mother quoted in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there's a saying in Greece that goes: The husband may be the head of the house, but the mother is the neck and she can turn the head any way she wants.  Greek marriages happen to have one of the lowest divorce rates in the world, and it can be attributed to strong relationships, morals and shared religious values. 

Before the Wedding-

Choosing a Date- In many cultures, there are certain dates that should be avoided when planning a wedding. In Greece and with Greek weddings around the world, it is customary to avoid:
- January 5th-6th
- Great Lent & Holy Week
- August 1st-15th
- August 29th (the Beheading of St. John the Baptist)
- September 14th (the Exaltation of the Holy Cross)
- December 13th-25th
- and the day before feast days and all Holy Days of the Lord
Otherwise, the calendar is open for your selection. 

Some Greek couples have a krevati (or bed-making ceremony) a few days before the wedding to bless the marital bed and the couple's fertility. Family members and close friends are invited to the house of the betrothed couple to witness the Priest blessing the wedding rings. A few individuals make the bed, then the couple's families come into the bedroom to wish the two of them a happy life together and throw money on the bed, to help them out in their new beginning. At the end of the ritual, they sometimes put a baby girl or boy on the bed, depending upon their wishes for the gender of their first child. This is sometimes called 'flipping of the baby'. 

The morning of the wedding, the Groom gets ready with good friends and family members at his parents' house. His Koumbaro (like a Best Man- see Ceremony below) gives him his ‘last shave' (before marriage, that is) and makes sure he is dressed and ready, while a violin player and singer provide a musical soundtrack to praise the groom before his departure from his home.

At some point in the morning, the Groom prepares and sends a gift package to the bride on a silver platter, which includes her shoes and money to cushion her feet throughout the day, and surrounded by almonds (a symbol of fertility). He sends his Koumbaro to deliver these gifts, and he is the one who helps her into her shoes (and places the money inside until they are the "perfect fit"). Oftentimes, the more money, the better the fit.  There are many rituals in his morning routine, including drinking three sips of wine, given to him by his mother in a ceramic cup, then throwing it on the ground. Sometimes, he'll throw it behind him and walk away without turning back, symbolizing the leaving of his parents and the joining of his wife. His parents and close friends tie a red scarf around his waist 3 times, signifying his fertility. 

Throughout the morning, the bride gets ready with friends and family at her parents' house. She may have a Koumbara (like a Maid of Honor), and may have one additional bridesmaid or may not have any. Oftentimes (especially in Crete), friends are involved and helpful, handing out favors and being there while she gets ready, but the only bridesmaid is on the smaller side- more like a flower girl, in fact. This small girl, or sometimes (but less often, small boy) is called “paranymfakia”. Her/his main responsibility is to hold the bride’s dress as she walks down the aisle. Sometimes in Greek-style weddings around the world (especially in the U.S.), there are multiple bridesmaids and a Maid/Matron of Honor instead or in addition. 
   The bride also drinks wine (from her parents) and breaks the cup. Her parents and close friends also tie a red scarf around her waist 3 times, signifying her virginity. 

Typically, the bride & groom travel to the church separately, accompanied by family and friends from their parents' houses. If it's too far, family and friends wave them off as they get into cars headed for the church. Musicians play (often violin and other string instruments) on the way, and the groom sometimes brings the bride's bouquet to the church for her.

The Greek wedding ceremony is full of tradition, ritual and historic symbolism. It is a beautiful service, often held in a Greek Orthodox church and it is mainly orchestrated and pronounced by the Priest. It has 8 basic parts:
1. The Betrothal: The priest blesses the rings 3 times, then the Koumbaro or Koumbara exchanges rings that are placed on the bride & groom's right ring fingers. 
2. The Lighting of the Candles
3. The Crowning: The couple is crowned with stefana. The couple is now officially wed!
4. The Blessing: The Priest reads from the Bible.
5. A Shared Drink: The bride & groom sip wine from a common cup. 
6. The First Steps: The newly married pair walks around the sacrament table, or altar, 3 times. 
7. The Prayer & the Blessing- The Priest blesses the wife and husband with a prayer. 
8. Proclamation of Husband and Wife- The Priest removes the crowns and charges the newlyweds to go forward in peace. They are proclaimed husband & wife at the end of the ceremony. 

Koumbari (or Koumbaroi)- Like a best man (koumbaro) and Maid of Honor (koumbara), these individuals are religious supporters of the betrothed couple.  They often become the godparents of the couple's children, and may be asked to contribute financially toward the Stefana, candles and koufeta favors. These individuals must have been baptized in the church, and if they are married, they must have been married in the church, as that's a requirement to become a godparent. They are participants in a few parts of the service, including the crowning ceremony and circling. They may be friends (who are becoming like family by doing the bride & groom this honor), and may even be the couple's godparents.

Stefana- These ornate crowns are often connected by a ribbon, blessed and placed on the bride & groom's heads during the service. This crowning ceremony joins the couple and establishes them as the King and Queen of their home. The crowns can be made of twigs wrapped in gold or silver, flowers, vines or precious stones or metals. Couples keep the crowns forever, and it is not until death that the ribbon between them is cut, the crowns then buried with each partner. Sometimes, after the wedding, the couple will store the crowns in a Stefanothiki, or a special crown case. This is said to preserve their beauty and serve as a visual reminder of the sacrament of their wedding day. It may be hung or displayed in the home, wherever the married couple chooses. 

Rings-  Traditionally in Greek weddings, the couple often uses their engagement rings for the wedding as well. They will eventually wear this ring on their right hand, so they move it to the left hand before the ceremony. The exchanging of the rings, which is switched back and forth 3 times, signifies that in married life, the weakness of one partner will be compensated by the strength of the other. Together, the newly married couple are complete and made perfect. 

Circling- Near the end of the service, the couple walks together in 3 circles around a table that holds the Gospel and the Cross, following the Priest's lead, with the Koumbari and the paranymfakia in tow while a hymn is sung. This circling symbolizing eternity and reminds the newly married couple of the sacrificial love they are to have for each other. By circling the table, the couple signifies their oath to preserve the marriage bond forever, until death. The triple circling is in honor of the Holy Trinity. 

The Common Cup- Following the readings and brief prayers, the common cup, containing a small portion of wine, is presented to the bride and groom. The priest blesses the cup and offers it to the newly joined husband and wife, representing their equal share in the cup of life.

The Foot "Stomp"- There is a phrase at the end of the apostolic reading St. Paul addressed to the Ephesians that says "Let the wife fear her husband". In older days, many believed that it advised every woman to tremble and obey without objection to their husbands. Today, it's a funny moment in the service, because it's now believed that the phrase means the woman should respect and consider her husband, as he was informed to love her, be himself, and sacrifice for her in an earlier reading. To show the playfulness and lightheartedness of today's received meaning, the wife steps on her husbands foot with a laugh, to show that she will not be going down easily!  Sometimes, he'll even step on her foot (lightly) to throw her off guard. 

The Evil Eye- During the ceremony, superstitious wedding attendants may wear traditional eye charms to ward off the evil eye. The belief in the evil eye, also called vaskania, stems from ancient times, when it was believed that some people were so jealous and envious that if they looked upon something or someone, it brought destruction. A version of that belief persists in the Orthodox Church today, so the evil eye symbol has carried through generations to remind us that jealousy and envy have no place in a wedding or a marriage. 

Martyrika- These witness pins are small lapel ribbons handed out at the end of the ceremony and worn by guests as proof of witnessing the wedding. The traditional pin is made of pink, white or blue ribbon and features a tiny cross or icon in the center. Personalization is optional, and the sponsors- or koumbari traditionally hand out the pins as guests are leaving the church. 

The Wedding Favors- The white, sugar-coated almonds (known by their Greek name, koufeta, or by their Italian name, bonboniere) are placed on the tray with the crowns and will later be offered to the guests. In the early days of the Church, honey dipped almonds were offered to the newlyweds by the priest. The white symbolizes purity. The egg shape represents fertility and the new life which begins with marriage. The hardness of the almond represents the endurance of marriage and the sweetness of the sugar symbolizes the sweetness of future life. The odd number of almonds that each guest receives is indivisible, just as the bride & groom shall remain undivided. Guests will receive either 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11 koufeta, with the most common number in Greece being 7 (the same as the Divine Mysteries of the Church) and in the U.S. being 5 (also symbolizing health, joy, fertility, prosperity and longevity). 
 Some believe that after the ceremony, the almonds and ribbon should be shared amongst the single women who will then place the ribbon under their pillows that night and see the man they will marry in their dreams. Sometimes, the almonds are wrapped in white tulle with blue ribbon to represent the colors of the Greek flag. 

Candles- Handmade and beautifully decorated wedding lambades (Candles) are traditional and essential in an Orthodox church wedding. The bride and groom each hold a lighted candle for a majority of the service, reminding the couple of the light of Christ who is with them throughout the sacrament and their coming life together. They are usually tapered, white and 18-24" in height. They are lit by the Priest during the service and handed to the couple. They symbolize the oil lamps of the 5 wise maidens in the Parable of the Ten Maidens in the Gospel of Matthew (5 were wise and 5 were foolish) and they also represent the spiritual willingness of the couple to receive Christ and his light. These candles should never be thrown in the garbage or reused for a baptism, but rather should be burned down- either at the church or at home. 

Ivy- Often incorporated into bridal bouquet, ivy symbolizes everlasting love & protection in Greece. 

Kissing- Not only the the Kiss a sign of love in Greek culture- it is one of the deepest symbols of respect that one person can offer to another. At a Greek Orthodox wedding, there are many moments throughout the ceremony in which the Priest will prompt the Bride, the Groom, the Koumbari or other important players to kiss the Holy Gospel (and in turn, the hand of the priest), the Stefana, or each other. Just before the Father of the Bride hands over his daughter to the Groom, the Groom will kiss the Father of the Bride’s right hand to show a sign of deep respect, honor and gratitude. 

   At the end of the wedding, guests come up to the alter to offer congratulations to the bride & groom in the form of 1, 2 or even 3 kisses on the cheek depending upon the cultural tradition of the family...and of course, it would not be a wedding without a kiss between the Bride and the Groom. It is a western cultural influence that the Bride and the Groom kiss at the end of the ceremony. However some couples wait until they are outside of the Church before getting too romantic. ( was an amazing source of info on Kissing in a Greek wedding)

Vows- Vows are not exchanged in the church ceremony, as it is accepted that the couple are serious about marriage by the sole fact that they are appearing in the church on their wedding day. Sometimes the couple will give a vow-like thank you speech at the reception to each other, their parents and their loved ones.

"Na Zisetel"- meaning "Long life to you!", this exclamation is often wished by the guests for the couple at the end of the ceremony in a shower of confetti and love. The guests have been given small pouches of rice or paper confetti and they either throw it as the couple circles the table or as they leave the church. When rice is used, it's symbolic as a Greek pun arising from the word rice "ryzi" in Greek and the word "rizono" which means to make roots. The couple, after being showered with rice or confetti, should become permanently connected together as if having roots.

Click here for Part 2- Greek Wedding Reception, Dances, Food, Post-Wedding Customs and Dress!

No comments:

Post a Comment