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Greek Wedding Traditions for Modern Couples


 

A complete guide of how the Greek wedding traditions are still relevant to couples getting married in the UK and other diaspora countries, respecting their heritage in a contemporary way.

 

There are numerous traditions that come in stages with every stage having its own process, meaning, and symbolisation according to customs and religion rituals. It’s no wonder that, although a couple can follow as many rituals as they want, the majority of Greek weddings follow most of the traditions. Passing on our valuable heritage, one way or another, is important, and we all feel it deep in our souls.

On a wedding, the photographers and videographers are the only vendors who follow the couple from the begging to the end of their big day. That means they are the lucky ones who collect great experience and wedding knowledge. This is just a small sample of a 18-year professional life as a Greek wedding photographer, highlighting the breadth and wealth of the Greek culture!

Hope you Enjoy reading this Greek wedding traditions “memoir” just as much as I did writing it!

 
A traditional bride of a Greek wedding

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WE LOVE GREEK WEDDING TRADITIONS, HOWEVER

The rich Greek folklore is meant to add traditional elements to a wedding and not overwhelm the couple and their families with too much stress. Unlike what was believed in the past – that if something is not done as the ancestors dictated then the wedding was doomed to fail – people have finally convinced themselves that tradition is there to make things happier and merrier, not harder. So, to anyone telling you what you should do before the wedding to live a good life with your other half, just close your ears and stick to the traditions you already know. Use them to bring joy while preparing for your most special day, okay?

 

Before the wedding


 
Greek traditional koufeta sweets

Engagement Rings

It is very likely for a Greek couple to exchange engagement rings prior the wedding. In the previous years, if a woman was seen hanging out with a man, especially in the evening hours, she was criticised by society and considered a woman with no values. To restore the girl's reputation, the man seen with her should give a wedding promise. That promise was an engagement ceremony, where the couple exchanged engagement rings and wore them on their left ring finger. When they got married, the same engagement rings were their wedding rings, too, only after the ceremonial rituals and blessings they were worn on the right hand to signify the couple's new “man and wife” status! Today, couples get engaged to share the joy they feel for having found their significant other and the person they want to spend their entire life with! Plus, to get the parents' blessings for the new chapter of their life opening up in front of them! At remote villages in Greece, an engagement ceremony is still considered a big deal.


Wedding Date

A couple can get married anytime they want, except during fasting periods, according to the Orthodox Church. As for the day of the wedding, most weddings used to take place on a Sunday. Nowadays, many couples prefer to have their wedding on a Saturday. That said, Sundays remain favourite wedding days, although many couples show a preference for weekday weddings, too.


 

Making the Bed

The “making the Bed” is one of the most popular and well-known traditions in Greece that takes place before the wedding. The family and friends of the bride and groom gather at the couple's new home to help with the preparation of the bed. It is a tradition that doesn't usually involve the groom. Present is only the bride-to-be, although modern couples tend to prefer a joined “making the bed” experience! The unmarried bride's friends make the bed and then family members and friends throw money, coins, rice, and rose petals on the bed for good luck and a happy life. This ritual ends with a child (usually a boy) been rolled across the bed to guarantee fertility! Now, if the groom is present, the making of the bed is a tedious and fun tradition, where the single ladies make and re-make the bed until the groom gives his approval!


 

Dowry (prika)

Until a few years ago, parents with girls would prepare their dowry as it was a big deal back then. This meant that their daughter should have her clothes, underwear, kitchenware, home decorative items, and linen all ready for when she'd meet her husband. These items were either purchased by the single girl herself and her mother, or handmade. On the Thursday before a Sunday wedding, the dowry was taken to the couple's future home with carriages, horses, cars or even trucks! It was also customary for the bride to display her dowry at her parent's home so people could wish her upon her imminent wedding, before she moved the dowry to her new home. Today, dowry is no longer a necessity, except for very few cases in villages.



Several Greek wedding traditions


Superstitions


  

Can I see the Bride?
The groom to be is not allowed to see his bride the day before the wedding. It is considered bad luck if otherwise. If for not anything else, it increases suspense!
The groom carries his bride on his hands and, together, they enter their home (or their hotel room) the first night after the wedding. That's a way to cast away the evil spirits lurking under the flooring to catch the bride!


 

The Number of Koufeta
The number of koufeta placed inside a bomboniere should always be an odd number. That is because it's believed that an odd number cannot be divided by 2. It represents the wish the new couple will never be divided. That aside, the koufeta are part of the servings to the guests at the house the morning following the wedding. It's also a tradition that single women sleep with a couple of koufeta under their pillow for 3 days so they can dream of their husband to be!


 

Let's Cross the Doorstep Together, Honey!
It is believed that if the bride trips or falls while passing the doorstep of her new home, she will have a turbulent marriage. This is another reason why the groom lifts her up in his arms and takes her inside their home!


 

It's Bad (or Good) Luck to...
• It is bad luck a bride sees another bride.
• If it's raining on your wedding day, you should be happy! The rain makes the land fertile. Likewise, if it rains the day of your wedding, you will have many children!
• If the wedding rings or stefana fall down, it is not a good sign.
• Leap year weddings were considered to be doomed to fail for thousands of years now. The Romans believed that February was the month of the dead, so no weddings were performed during that month until very recently. It all started with royal families which ruled that when a wedding between blue-blooded was taking place, no other wedding was allowed within that same year. When a king got married on a leap year, nobody else could get married that year. Over the course of time that incident became a superstition and was established as a ground rule: No couple should get married on a leap year. What can I say? Are you eager to postpone your wedding for another year and a day!!!


 

Can I Have a Cup of Coffee? Heck, NO!
In some areas in Greece, the family (particularly old ladies) doesn't offer a cup of coffee. Even the wedding photographer! They believe they shouldn't be making coffee on a wedding day!



Three flower girls holding traditional baskets


Sweets & Drinks are Served!

Koufeta
Traditionally, wedding bombonieres (wedding favours) are filled with sweet sugar almonds called koufeta that are given to the guests. They have a strong symbolic meaning at the wedding and their egg shape represents fertility. Their sugary flavour symbolises the sweetness of the couple's future life while their hard almond heart represents the endurance of the marriage. Τhere are usually 7 koufeta in each bomboniere as are the Divine Mysteries of the Orthodox Church. However, there are also bombionieres with 5 koufeta, which symbolise fertility, health, happiness, longevity, and prosperity. As for their colour, white koufeta are traditionally used for a wedding as white symbolises purity. However, you may also see silver, gold, pink, green, orange or even blue koufeta if the couple has decided to match their bombonieres with the wedding theme! It should be noted that the bombonieres are only offered by single girls and guests receiving them usually wish the girls a quick and happy marriage to them, too!
Local sweets
Depending on the area where a wedding takes place, different treats are offered to the guests before the wedding. For example:

At the beautiful island of Amorgos, guests are treated with pieces of pasteli (sesame seed candy) placed over lemon tree leaves or rolled pasteli bites followed by a glass of Muscat Blanc (Barefoot Moscato Wine).

At Kimolos island, people offer guests a piece of pasteli with the bomboniere, which symbolise the newly weds' sweet life and the deep attachment to one another!

The Peloponnese mother-in-laws, on the other hand, make diples (desert made with thin sheet-like dough, rolled into thin strips, fried in hot oil and dipped in syrup or honey) that they make themselves. And, after the wedding, they place a traditional scarf on the newly weds' heads after they offer them a spoonful of honey and walnuts.

At Kyparissia, the bride's family makes the bridal bread called kouloura and adorn it with lovely flowers, bird figures, and stars, all made from dough. In the middle, they place two beautiful pigeons that symbolise the bride and groom. The kouloura is then cut and offered to the guests after the wedding dinner. There are cases, though, where the couple gets to keep the kouloura for themselves as a wedding memorabilia!

In the Etoloakarnania region, it's customary to offer kourampiedes (shortbread-type butter biscuits with almonds and lots of powdered sugar that covers each one!) on the wedding day, along with a drink.

Among the countless Thracian wedding traditions, I have noticed that the tsoureki (Greek Easter sweet bread) called “kouliki” made by the bride's father is something common. Once the father makes the kouliki, the bride's friends break the bread over her head after making the sign of the cross with basil leaves. Then, pieces of that bread are offered to the guests. Also, single girls place a piece under their pillow to dream of their future hubby!

Homemade wedding treats and sweets have a significant place in every home in Mytilene, too. The fabulous island is blessed with abundant sunlight and a great climate that allows trees to reach their prime soon, offering plenty of fruits that the women of the island use to make their famous spoon sweets. Besides the baklava that's also a primary wedding treat at Mytilene, Lesvos' amugdalota (almond cookies) are also popular. Some people even say that the almond cookies there are the best in Greece! I must say, I tend to agree with them! They taste delicious! They are also treats the bride offers her mother-in-law at the engagement ceremony.

Finally, in the mountainous regions of Naxos island, guests to a wedding are offered a glass or raki or tsipouro and xerotigano (also a traditional Cretan homemade delight dripping with honey that symbolises abundance and happiness) along with their bonboniere. To make the xerotigano, all the women of the village gather at the bride's home to give a hand, because the preparation is very time-consuming. Again, the mother of the groom gives the newlyweds honey when they arrive home, something I have seen in many weddings across the country.

Simillar wedding traditional sweets with small variations can be found in other parts of Greece of course.
Other treats and sweets
Other treats and sweets also offered to the guests include:
• meringues
• macaroons,
• pishies,
• pastitsi,
• kourabiedes,
• loukoumia,
• nougat,
• glutzista,
• kserotigana and diples,
• katimeria,

and many more, along with soumada (orgeat almond drink with rose water and sugar).
A Greek wedding tradition with koumbaros


Let s talk about the


The Koumparos / The Koumpara


The koumparos is the couple's best man (the koumpara refers to a woman and is pretty much like the bride's maid of honour only with more responsibilities!) and plays a vital role in the ceremony. Traditionally, the groom's godfather or his children were asked to serve first or a family member or a close friend of the couple or the family.


I believe that the koumparos or koumpara plays a much more vital role than the British/American Best Man and Maid of Honor. The koumparos in Greece is the “sponsor” of the marriage, and has a very special role in the ceremony, performing rituals. Indeed, in some geographic regions in Greece, such as Epirus, I've been to weddings where the koumparos and his family were extremely appreciated and honoured with various traditions paying tribute to them and lots of traditional dancing involved.

I remember a wedding at Santorini among local families. The groom met with the bride at her home and they walked all the way to the church, through cobble-stoned, quaint streets, always accompanied by the music of a band playing traditional wedding songs. However, it was not the groom that was escorting the bride to the church; it was the koumparos! The groom was walking behind them!

Also, the koumparos and koumpara are both blessed with the honour of becoming the couple's first born child's godparents. Through the practice of baptism, the koumparos or koumpara become the child's spiritual parents and mentors.

Did I mention that a long time ago, politicians were the most preferred people to become the koumparos-wedding sponsor? Yes, that's true, even today, although not as customary as before!

 

Preparations Before the Wedding


The Groom gets Shaved by his Best Man!
On the wedding day, the groom’s friends will help him get ready. The koumparos will shave him; this confirms the trust between the two men. His friends will help to dress him. One might assist him to tie his bow and another may help him put his blazer on.

A Greek groom is shaved by his best man while dancing traditional songs

The Bride's Friends Help her Put on her Wedding Dress!
Accordingly, at the bride’s house, her koumpara and friends will help her put her dress on. At his time in some parts of Greece, they are also singing traditional wedding songs. Just before the bride puts her shoes on, she will write the names of her unmarried friends on the bottom of her shoes. The tradition says that the names of the girls that will be erased by the end of the day will get married soon.

 

The Koumparos Pays for the Bride's Wedding Shoe to Fit!
The koumparos visits the bride's house the day of the wedding to escort her to church. But, the doors are shut! There are many traditions around his visit. For example, he may have to bring a fried chicken all fancily decorated and adorned in exchange to enter the house! Then, he must help the bride put her shoes on. At this point, the bride always pretends the shoes don't fit her as they are too large! Then, the koumparos places money to make her feet slide in until the happy bride-to-be says she is comfortable in her wedding shoes! This “show” could continue with other men in the home, such as the bride's father, who may also try his luck and see if he can make that shoe fit!

Friends of the bride helping her getting ready

The Cypriot “Stolisma”
In Cyprus, the tradition indicates the “stolisma”. When the bride is ready, a band plays a song that calls all the bride’s relatives to give her their bless. During this ritual, a red scarf is passed around the bride’s waist which symbolizes fertility. The same ritual is performed on the groom, too. Then the “Kapnistiri” takes place, which is a censer traditionally used as a smoke blessing to the bride and groom.

 

The Ceremony (General)


Some of the wedding rituals and traditions have changed while others have been replaced by others over time. For example, in Greek weddings, the groom, his family and other guests wait at the church's yard for the bride and her family to arrive. Then, the bride's father or brother escorts her and hands her over to the groom outside the church's entrance. It’s custom for the Greek groom to have brought a bouquet for his bride, which he presents to her as her parents give her away, before they walk the aisle to the priest.

Abroad, many Greeks have adopted the etiquette of the western cultures, where the bride's father hands her over to her future husband in front of the priest, inside the church. Although there is nothing wrong with it, they actually miss out on a fantastic and fun show taking place upon the bride's arrival, when the car driving her to the church (and the cars of the guests following it!) doesn't stop and circles around the church, making as much noise as possible! This gives the feeling that the bride, who must traditionally arrive late, may have second thoughts, which increases anxiety and anticipation on the groom's side! To be honest here, this ritual also serves the guests that have escorted the bride's car to the church. By having the bride doing circles around the church, they get the chance to find a spot and park their cars (imagine that there are as many as 300-1000 people at the wedding!).

That aside, the waiting phase outside the church is one of the most symbolic moments in a couple's new life. It's where the two families meet one last time before their children leave their nest and start their own family with the blessings of their parents and loved ones.

The ceremony itself is a beautiful act of customs and rituals of Orthodox Church, unchanged since the 11th century. It lasts 30 to 60 minutes and it has many acts that symbolize beliefs that need to be followed.

A bride arrives in a greek church

Truth be told, nobody wants to miss the bride's arrival. And, when she meets with her groom and they kiss they all clap their hands! What a wonderful sensation!

“This is a great mystery, and it is an illustration of the way Christ and the Church are one.” (Ephesians 5:32)


As Fr Joseph Paliouras mentions: For Apostle Paul marriage is a great Mystery and illustrates a bond of perfect union and devotion; one that is eternal and unbreakable. The very presence of our Lord at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) just shows us how important this mystery is to our Holly Church, and we can all understand why it is so blessed.Two people become one under the eyes of God and promise to share a life filled with sincere, pure, and constant love and respect, not withstanding each other's failures and defects; just like Christ gave himself for the church.

To all of you planning to get married soon, please accept my fatherly advice and choose to start your new life and meet within the bosom of our Church.

(The Very Revd. Protopresbyter Joseph Paliouras serves at the 12 Apostles Church in Hertfordshire, UK).



Greek wedding traditions at the church

The Decorations


There is always a pair of wedding candles (the height of a small child or taller) that are placed opposite the couple, inside the church. Over time, the wedding decorations have included hallway embellishments, flower compositions on the stairs, and even decorative pieces, such as lanterns and balloons outside the church. Of course, both the bride and groom's homes and balconies are also decorated with tulle inspirations (and not only), with the bride's being the fancier! In short, if there is a wedding in Greece, everybody in the neighbourhood or a random passerby will know!

 

What Happens During the Wedding Ceremony


There are some common rituals in almost every wedding I've been called to immortalise. For example:

The stefana, which may have flower embroideries, are linked with a ribbon that symbolises 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 koumparos or koumpara 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 koumparos).

When the priest reads the primary of the wedding blessings, he joins their right hands. Then he does the stefana blessing, he reads the Gospel of Wedding in Cana (Jesus' first miracle), he pours wine into a single cup or glass and gives the couple to take three sips each from it. The bridegroom drinking from a single glass symbolises the shared life and experiences they commit to living together.

A Greek wedding traditional ceremony
Then, comes the “Isaias dance”. It's the part of the wedding rite where the priest leads the couple to their first walk together around the table. Some priests also ask the koumparos or koumpara to follow the couple while holding the ribbon of the stefana.

When the priest removes the stefana from the couple's heads, he says “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder (separate).” This means that no one should try to split apart those two people.

There is a line in the wedding missal that calls the husband to love his wife as himself and the wife to respect her husband. In weddings in greek, the phrase has a word that translates to “fear” so it's humourously perceived as “the woman shall fear (rather than respect) her husband”. In Greece when the cantor reads that phrase, everybody present has their eyes on the bride's feet because it's often customary for her to step her right foot over the groom's left one (just slightly) to show that she's not afraid of him!

Snapshots of the orthodox service
In many parts of Greece, the couple exits the church after they give their koumparos or koumpara a gift.

Once the couple exits the church, the guests await with a handful of rice and rose petals that they throw to the married couple. Given that rice is linked to fertility (like all other seeds), the couple is wished for wealth! Also, rice (called “gamopilafo”, meaning wedding rice) is often the first meal been offered at the wedding dinner. This is particularly common in weddings taking place in villages and islands.

After the wedding ceremony, guests congratulate the happy couple and are then given a bomboniere, along with a small wedding favour.

 

The Celebration


Last but not least, the wedding celebration and dinner, like almost everything in Greece, is loud – really loud! If you have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies, then you know what I'm talking about! There is so much joy and enthusiasm in the air that the Greeks express through singing, dancing, and speaking loudly! It's amazing how the Greeks can dance in circles for hours non-stop. The bride and groom dance first, followed by their parents and closest relatives, who, by turns, lead 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. Again, the koumparos or koumpara are important figures as they get to join the dance, no matter who leads it!

Greek wedding traditions
The food differ from area to area since each part of Greece has its unique style of cooking. What's common, though, is that meat is served in big portions followed by local cuisine dishes.

Each area also has its representative folk music. The most popular are dimotika wedding songs such as tsamika, ipirotika (Epirus), thrakiotika (Thrace), zeimpekika, kalamatiana, kritika (Crete) and nisiotika (Islands) like the most beloved "Tou Gamou" especially of Giannis Parios' performance.

On Greek-Cypriot weddings, there is a dance for the couple called “Money Dance”. This is because while the bridegroom dance to traditional music with a napkin in their hands, guests come and pin money on their clothes. Some couples might still celebrate with this dance, which is also a way of gathering the customary wedding gifts of cash.

In some villages of the Greek mainland guests are also pin money on the couple after the ceremony when they wish them "na zisete!".

A Cypriot money dance


From all around Greece

Other Wedding Customs

In many smaller towns and villages of Greece, a wedding band escort the bride from her home to the church and everybody dances all along the way!


The Bride's Bread is when the bride was about to exit her parent's home, her parents break a large wedding pretzel or “nifopsomo” over her head and give everybody present a piece so they can wish for a good life, happy marriage, health, and wealth to the bride-to-be.


The Mother-in-Law's Treat is when the bride's mother-in-law waits for her bride to come home after the wedding, she treats her with honey and walnuts. The honey symbolises the sweet life she wishes the couple to have and the walnuts symbolise fertility. Also, I've seen mother-in-laws place an iron ring under the doormat. The newlyweds step on the iron ring. That way, they are wished for a solid-rock marriage! Finally, some mother-in-laws place a piece of cotton on their bride's chest, wishing her to live a blessed life by their son's side until her hair is white!


Centaurus' Mountain Celebrate! Enchanting Pelio Μountain at the southeastern part of Thessaly has people that hold old wedding traditions like a Bible. Women ensure they make spoon sweets (or “gluko tou koutaliou”) and treats from the trees that flourish in the area so they can have them ready for an entire year. That way, if a wedding takes place during that year, they are well-prepared!  At Zagora village, baklava was, and still is, a traditional wedding treat and its making is an important part of the whole ritual! It comes with such a strong symbolism of the couple's sweet new life that it comes as no surprise it's not missed from any wedding. Admittedly, the women here are masters of baklava, judging from my personal culinary experience!


Who's Next? Many modern Greek wedding receptions have borrowed events from other cultures. For example, throwing out the bridal bouquet to see who's next in line to get married is not among the Greek wedding traditions. The same applies to the Greek grooms that are seen using their teeth to retrieve their wife's garter and throwing it out to the single men present to see who is the next lucky guy to find his other half and get married. Nevertheless, we can't say we're not enjoying the new customs!

Cretan Multi-Day Feasts!

To the Cretans, weddings are a community thing; everybody participates and everybody celebrates a wedding! In fact, celebrations start the day before the wedding, when family and friends gather at the bridegroom's homes and have a feast with lots of wine and food. And this goes on and on for days after the wedding!


Just before the wedding, there's also another custom for the Cretans. The bride and her parents prepare a delicate basket with the groom's clothes (suit, vest, tie, shoes, etc.) and the same happens with the groom, who prepares his bride's wedding dress, shoes, underwear, and everything else she'll need to prepare for the wedding. Then, relatives from both sides deliver the clothes to the other side, greeted with treats and warm hugs. In some cases, a lovely “show” takes place, where the relatives “refuse” to hand over an item or try to “steal” an item from the other side's home!


As for the koumparos or koumpara, they have a special place in every Cretan wedding. Among the customs for the koumparos is the kaniski (gifts and presents) that should be given to the koumparos on Saturday night. At older times, that gifts included wine and a sheep or goat and signaled the start of a feast and singers singing local, traditional wedding songs! Today, the type of treats the koumparos gets varies, but the gamokoulouro (semi-sweet bread beautifully adorned) is a must.


The Cretans celebrate for days and days with lots of raki or tsikoudia, a strong distilled spirit, and Cretan wedding deserts known as xerotigana (fried dumplings with honey). Needless to say, the widely known gamopilafo is also a front-line dish!!!


Finally, during the wedding ceremony, single men and women (guests) are offered honey and walnuts!
In Cyprus

Besides the stolisma, the koumparos or koumpara used to write their names on a large, white ribbon that would be linked to the wedding crowns, during the ceremony. The more koumparoi, the better! As a matter of fact, the success of a marriage was believed to be determined by the number of koumparos or koumpara they had!

A Greek couple
Cretan Mantinada (Form of Folk Song)
In Greek
 

Τα μάτια της, τα μάτια του ήταν προξενητάδες,
ούτε προικιά γυρέψανε ούτε πολλούς παράδες.


Τον Ύψιστο παρακαλώ να σας χαρίζει χρόνους,
όπως χαρίζει στην ελιά τα φύλλα και τους κλώνους.


Εύχομαι σ’ όσους ήρθανε για να μας συγχαρούνε,
και στα δικά τους τα παιδιά τέτοια χαρά να δούνε.

Translated

(although it's very difficult – to almost impossible – to depict the sentiment delivered in Greek)


 

When their eyes met, they knew they had it all.
No dowry, no money was needed to make their love grow.


I pray to the Lord to give you many happy years
and give your marriage roots so deep to shake away all fears.


To those that have come to drink to our joy,
I wish them all the best and live the same joy.

A just-married couple walking in an old Greek village

The aftermath



There are many Greek wedding traditions, customs and rituals that are followed even nowadays with the most important and common ones outlined above. However, there are hundreds more that are not so well known as they come from small islands or villages and the only way to get to know them is to be part of one of those deeply traditional weddings in Greece!

A girl and bridal shoes
Final Thoughts from the Greek Wedding Photographer!

I must admit I feel honoured to have been part of so many weddings during the last years and been treated like a beloved family member by so many Greek people within the geographic borders of our wonderful Greece and also in the UK, Germany and the US. After a two decades shooting Greek weddings and their traditions, I have acquired an intricate knowledge of what the Orthodox ceremony involves, as well as a thorough understanding and appreciation of the traditions from every corner of Greece's mainland and the islands of the beautiful Ionian, North and South Aegean seas, including Crete and our beloved Cyprus. However, the vastness of the Greek greatness and the richness of our traditions and customs will always amaze me as there is something new with each Greek wedding, whose moments I am called to immortalise and enshrine.

 
 
NEK VARDIKOS | DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO | ST ALBANS HERTFORDSHIRE, LONDON AND INTERNATIONAL

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