Let's Talk - Greek Wedding Traditions



The following article was published in The National Herald on February 10, 2018

Authored by Eleni Sakellis


The Greek wedding has taken on mythic proportions in the popular imagination worldwide, thanks in no small part to the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, even if it is nearing sixteen years since its release. 

Greek-Americans have done their part in expanding the idea of the Greek wedding in all its grandeur, from the huge guest list to the impressive reception menu, but the traditional aspects of the Greek wedding are what make it truly unique and special. Those of us from the average, usually large, Greek family will undoubtedly have attended numerous weddings throughout a single lifetime. I recall being shocked and saddened to hear that one of my classmates (non-Greek) had never attended a wedding in her life at the ripe old age of 12 or 13. By that age, most GreekAmericans have been to at least three or four weddings and have probably participated as a flower girl or ring bearer in at least one or two. There a lot of Greek wedding traditions and from one region to the next, there are many variations. The traditional music varies, too, who has attended several Greek weddings of those from various parts of the country will attest.

The traditions actually begin well before the bride and groom have even met. The tradition of the prika, or dowry, begins with the mother of the bride buying items or making them by hand for her daughter’s future wedding, linens, clothing, household items, and usually storing them in a large chest over the course of many years. In the past, young women showed off their skills in embroidery and other crafts in the items they made by hand for their dowry. Today, most of the items a bride needs are purchased.

In the past, engagement rings in Greece were usually not the diamond solitaire type we associate with them today. The Greek engagement ring was a gold band worn on the left ring finger after the engagement blessing and then the same ring served as the wedding ring, moved from the left to the right hand during the appropriate moment of the wedding ceremony. In some villages, the engagement is still an important separate ceremony, though it is also how the wedding service begins, but more on that later. 

Setting the date is another aspect of the traditional Greek wedding that should not be overlooked if you’re planning a church wedding. There are certain times of the year when weddings are not performed at all, namely during fasting periods like Great Lent, the two weeks before the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15, August 29- the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, September 14- the Elevation of the Holy Cross, and the 40 days leading up to Christmas. 

In ancient times, January was considered the best month to marry since it was the month dedicated to the goddess of marriage and fertility, Hera. The Roman version of Hera is Juno, which made her month of June the preferred month to wed. Sunday is traditionally the preferred day for weddings, but more and more couples choose Saturday, and some now even choose to marry on weekdays. The Thursday before the Sunday wedding was when the dowry or prika was delivered to the couple’s soon-to-be home. In the days leading up to the delivery, it was a custom for the dowry to be on display in the bride’s parents’ home so visitors could admire it wish the bride well in her marriage. The dowry is no longer common, but in many places where Greeks have settled, the parents of the bride sometimes give the gift of a house or help with buying a house which has, to some extent, come to replace the dowry of the past. 

Choosing the koumbaro and koumbara who are “sponsors” of the wedding is another Greek tradition. The groom’s godparent is asked first, then the bride’s godparent, if they decline or simply cannot do it, close friends and family are then asked. The role is a serious one since the koumbaro and koumbara participate in the wedding ceremony and then are expected to baptize the couple’s first child, a huge responsibility.

Another tradition usually a few days before the wedding is the making of the marital bed. The family and friends are invited to a party to make the bed at the soon-to-be husband and wife’s house for good luck and fertility. After the bed is made, flowers, money, and koufeta are thrown on top, and finally a baby is also set on top of the bed. Whether it’s a baby girl or boy will supposedly determine what the firstborn child will be. The preference is traditionally for a baby boy. In some regions, rice is also thrown on top of the bed. 

On the day of the wedding, the koumbaro or best man shaves the groom as part of the dressing for the wedding tradition. Meanwhile at the bride’s home, her maid of honor or koumbara leads the bridesmaids in helping the bride dress for the wedding. In some regions, the names of the single bridesmaids are written on the soles of the bride’s shoes and the names that are worn off by the end of the night are those of the ladies next to be married. 

Another shoe related custom is that the groom is supposed to buy the bride’s shoes for the wedding day. Either he or the koumbaro or best man delivers the shoes and the bride is supposed to pretend that they are too big and don’t fit her. The koumbaro then places coins in the shoes for good luck and to help them, supposedly, fit better. 

The Cypriot tradition is called stolisma and after the bride is ready, includes wrapping a red sash around the bride’s waist for fertility while music is played and all her relatives give her a blessing. The red sash is also draped around the groom’s waist at his house, and then the kapnistiri takes place during which a censor is used to bless the bride and groom.

When the bride is about to exit her parent's home, her parents break a large wedding pretzel or “nifopsomo” over her head and give all those in attendance a piece so they can wish all the best to the bride for a happy marriage, health, and wealth. 

In many regions of Greece, a procession to the church takes place with traditional songs performed for the bride and her family and the groom and his family along the way. A band sometimes escorts the bride to the church and everyone in the community follows and dances all the way to the church. Traditionally, the groom waits outside of the church for the bride’s arrival and then gives her the bouquet before they walk down the aisle together. The father of the bride or her brother gives the bride away to the groom outside the church. 

The wedding ceremony begins with the blessing of the couple’s engagement and the rings. As noted in Manhattan Bride, “The betrothal service recognizes the engagement of the couple by the church and includes the priest’s blessing of the rings. He also alternately blesses the bride and groom three times.” 

As noted on nvphotographers.com, “The stefana, or crowns, are linked with a ribbon that symbolizes the union of two people into a married couple and are placed on a table in front of the bridegroom, along with the Bible, the wine, and the rings. 

“The koumbaro or koumbara exchanges the rings three times and swaps the stefana three times, before he places them on the couple's heads. This is a physical demonstration of their spiritual bonding (the couple and koumbari).”

When the priest begins the wedding blessings, he joins the couple’s right hands. Then the priest blesses the stefana blessing, reads the Gospel of the Wedding in Cana (Jesus' first miracle), then pours wine into a single cup or glass, and gives it to the couple to take three sips each from it. The couple drinking from a single glass symbolizes their commitment to sharing their life and experiences for the rest of their days. 

The Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony has remained the same since the 11th century. “It is a ‘blessed union’ that implies this must be a permanent union,” said Fr. Robert Stephanopoulos, Dean Emeritus Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, as reported in Manhattan Bride. 

The two parts of the Greek Orthodox wedding service are the betrothal and the marriage service. A small table on which a special tray is placed with the wedding crowns, betrothal rings, candles, goblet of sanctified wine, and the book of the Gospels serves as the “matrimonial altar,” Manhattan Bride reported. 

After the stefana are in place on the bride and groom’s heads, the dance of Isaiah takes place. The priest leads the couple for their first walk together as man and wife around the table with the koumbaro or koumbara following the couple while holding the ribbon of the stefana. They walk around the table three times and when the priest removes the stefana from the couple's heads, he says “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” 

The reading of two passages from the Bible follows the stefana. The first reading is the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, which emphasizes the union of the bride and groom into one being. “There are basic themes interwoven throughout every prayer recited,” Fr. Stephanopoulos said, as reported in Manhattan Bride, adding that, “One such theme is mutual fulfillment, as seen in the reading, ‘Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife, loves himself.’ 

“The second reading is from the Gospel According to St. John,” Stephanopoulos continued, “It recounts the wedding of Cana in Galilee, where the first miracle of the New Testament was performed and water was turned into wine.” As the wine was drunk in Galilee, the bride and groom take three sips each from the same cup of wine, symbolizing the sharing of everything in their lives.

 The Dance of Isaiah, follows, and then three hymns of praise are sung, asking blessings “to grant you length of days, fair children, progress in life and faith,” as noted in Manhattan Bride. 

A final blessing is given by the priest, the stefana are removed, and the dismissal prayer concludes the ceremony. 

After the ceremony, the stefana are placed in a stefanothiki that is placed in the couple’s bedroom above their bed. Various materials can be used to make the stefana which can be elaborate and include beading to match the bride’s or they can be made of flowers. 

Among the words spoken by the priest during the ceremony is the line in the wedding missal that exhorts the husband to love his wife as himself and the wife to respect her husband. The phrase in Greek includes a word that can be translated as “fear” so it is lightheartedly thought of as “the woman shall fear (rather than respect) her husband.” In Greece, when the cantor reads that phrase, the attendees turn their attention to the bride's feet in case she steps with her right foot on the groom’s left foot, demonstrating who will actually be in charge during the marriage. 

In some areas of Greece, the newlywed couple only leaves the church after giving the koumbara or koumbaro a gift. The bride and groom and the wedding party line up by the church exit to receive the congratulations of the guests. Rice, symbolic of fertility and wealth, and flower petals are traditionally thrown at the newlyweds as they exit the church. Gamopilafo (wedding rice) is common dish at the dinner following the church service. Bombonieres, a small wedding favor with koufeta (Jordan almonds) is handed out to each guest. 

The number of koufeta is always an odd number, symbolizing the couple’s life together which cannot be divided in half and will likely be bittersweet like the almonds coated in sugar. 

At the reception, the bride and groom dance first, followed by their parents and closest relatives, who take turns leading the dance. At some weddings, the groom's parents and relatives start the first dance with the bridegroom. The second dance is for the bride's parents and their relatives. Popular dimotika wedding songs include tsamika, Epirotika (Epirus), Thrakiotika (Thrace), zeimbekika, Kalamatiana, Kritika (Crete) and nisiotika (songs from the islands) like the perennial favorite “Tou Gamou” sung by Yiannis Parios.

For some weddings, the tradition of pinning money to the newlyweds’ clothing continues. As the couple is dancing, guests approach them, wishing the couple “Na zisete,” and pinning the money to their clothes. The traditional wedding gift is cash and the “money dance” is often a means of gathering the gift envelopes from the guests during the reception and on their way out.

I n Crete, the weddings i n c l u d e the entire community and last for days. The day before the wedding, family and friends gather at the bridegroom’s home for a festive dinner with plenty of food and wine. Also before the wedding, the bride and her parents assemble a basket with all the groom’s necessities and clothing for the wedding while the groom and his parents do the same for the bride. The relatives on each side deliver the baskets, greeting each other warmly, and in some cases pretending not to hand over items leading to attempts at “stealing” an item from the other side.

On Saturday night, usually the night before the wedding, gifts are given to the koumbaro and koumbara which in the past included wine and a sheep or goat and led to a feast with traditional wedding songs sung. The gifts for the koumbaro today vary widely, though the gamokoulouro, a decorated sweet bread, continues to be a part of the gifts. 

The drinking of raki or tsikoudia is part of the celebration as are kserotigana, fried dumplings with honey for dessert. The single guests are served honey and walnuts. 

Roasted meats, lamb, goat, pork, and local favorites are traditionally served at Greek weddings. Lamb youvetsi is one of the favorite dishes. Wine, ouzo, and soumada- a drink made from almonds, are also served at weddings. 

A recently married Greek bride told Manhattan Bride, “There was so much symbolism and ritual in our ceremony. Everything meant something. After the crowning, you and your husband are coming into this whole new world together, and it really is an amazing experience.”