A complete guide of how the Greek wedding traditions are still relevant to couples getting married in the UK, the US 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 an 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
“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).
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!
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!!!
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!
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.
(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.
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!
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 across the UK, Germany, Australia 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.
If you like my work and you wish to hire me for your wedding get in touch! I love to travel and I would absolutely LOVE to be part of your Greek wedding anywhere in the world!