The 23rd of June is going to be a special day, and not because Saint Ioannis is celebrated, but because it’s the day I’m getting married!
A wedding in Greece – what exactly happens?
Marrying the man of my dreams is absolutely fantastic, but what’s even better, is that the wedding will take place in Greece – and not just any place in Greece; it’s going to happen on the small island of Kalymnos, where George and I met in the summer of 2005.
In my 29 years, I’ve only participated in very few weddings, and unfortunately none of them have been been Greek. I actually don’t know what the Greek wedding traditions consist of, and that makes me a little worried.
However, I have taken matters into my own hands and found some answers… So read along if you are, as I am, curious about what a Greek wedding in the orthodox faith is.
Koumbaros/koumbara – the equivalent to a Greek best man or maid of honor
Before the wedding, the couple has to select a koumbaros (man) or koumbara (woman). They are the equivalent to the best man or maid of honor, but in the Greek tradition they are much more than that.
First of all, he or she must be baptized Greek orthodox because he or she must take an active part in the ceremony (read the details of this in the section on the wedding ceremony). In addition, it’s normally either the groom’s or the bride’s godfather who get this role, but if it is not convenient to him or her, then a close family member or friend will be asked.
Usually there is only one koumbaros, but some priests allow two. These are the people who perform a few of the rituals during the wedding ceremony, and in the future, it is said that they become godfather or godmother of the first-born of the couple. A koumbaros or koumbara also gets the honor of baptizing the firstborn child.
Traditions before the wedding ceremony: The making of the double bed.
Before the wedding, many kinds of rituals are performed. One or two days before the wedding, the couple’s bed will be prepared and it will be made in a somewhat, interesting way.
Friends and family are invited to perform the ritual of making the bed in the house, where the couple will live after the wedding. Only unmarried women, whose both parents are living, can take part in making the bed, and when it’s done, the groom must visit to see if he is satisfied. If he does not like the bed, he asks the women to start over. This is repeated until the groom likes what he sees.
When the bed is finished, the rest of the guests are invited into the bedroom. They sprinkle money, rose petals, koufeta (sugar almonds), and rice on the bed, which all symbolize a good start to the couple’s common life, and that the bridal couple will create their roots and stay together forever. Finally, a child is being placed on the bed briefly to give fertility to the couple. It is said that the first child of the couple has the same gender as what was laid on the bed.
The groom is getting dressed
The groom gets ready in the house of his family. He takes a bath and sits down on a chair in the middle of the room where he has to get dressed. He is not wearing anything other than his underwear, and he is not supposed to put on his own clothes. His friends and family do that for him.
First, his koumbaros (best man) starts shaving him. This is to show the bond and the confidence that is between the two. The closest male friends and family members of the groom then help him put his clothes on. Each person puts one item on at a time on the groom, so everyone is taking part in the event. One puts one sock on, and one gives him the other. A friend or family member puts the shirt on the groom, another the pants, belt, tie, jacket, etc.
Each person puts one piece of clothing or accessory on him at a time until the groom is fully dressed. Even his perfume must be sprayed on him by someone else! While the groom gets ready, there are musicians present who play violin and lute, and sing for him. The groom and his family and friends then take part in dancing traditional Greek folk dance to the music after the dressing is done.
It is a Greek tradition that the musicians make sure they arrive at the church before the groom, so they are ready to accompany him to the altar with music. In addition, the groom must arrive at the church before the bride. Furthermore, he has the bridal bouquet that he gives to the bride when she arrives.
The bride is getting dressed
The bride gets ready in a similar way as the groom. She is assisted in putting on her dress and jewelry, which her unmarried girlfriends and family help with.
Under the shoes of the bride, the names of all her unmarried friends are written. When the evening is over, she sees which name is left standing, because this will be the person who gets married next time.
While the bride gets ready, old traditional songs are being sung to her in Greek, and often violin and lute are played at the same time. When the bride is ready, she dances traditional Greek folk dances with her friends and family.
After the dancing and music, and when the bride is ready from head to toe, she leaves her home and goes to church. She should not look back, nor if she should have forgotten anything. This is a symbol that she leaves her old life behind in order to begin a new chapter with her future husband.
Honks and hazards
When the bride and groom are driving to the church in each of their separate cars, the driver puts the hazards on and honks the car horn all the way to the church. The family and friends who drive behind the bride or groom also honk all the way. It is a tradition that shows the great joy and celebration of marriage that you wish to share with all your surroundings.
After the wedding ceremony, it is normal for the bridal couple to ride together in their own decorated car, taking a big detour around the roads before arriving at the party afterwards. On the way, they honk and keep their hazards on, which the cars behind them do as well.
People in the streets wave and shout at the couple to share the joy with them. In Greece, tourists also think it’s a fun sight, and they like to wave at the noisy cars on their way to the wedding party.
The arrival of the bride
The father of the bride walks his daughter to the entrance of the church where the groom is awaiting her. He is standing with the bridal bouquet in his hands, which he gives to the bride after taking her right hand from her father’s.
The bride greets the parents of the groom, and the groom does the same with the parents of the bride. Then the couple walks down the church aisle into the church, where they kiss the icons inside. Then they stand in front of the altar (the groom is on the right side).
The stefana (Greek wedding wreaths)
During the ceremony, crowns or wreaths are placed on the heads of the bridal couple. In the Greek Orthodox Church, they use wreaths called stefana in Greek. The wreaths are connected with a ribbon, which symbolize the union of the couple. With stefana, the couple is crowned as king and queen of their common home.
The wedding ceremony in the Greek Orthodox Church
The wedding ceremony consists of two parts. First, an engagement ceremony takes place where the rings are given. The next part is the wedding ceremony, where the couple will wear their crowns / wreaths on their heads, the priest prays for them, they are both drinking of the common cup, and eventually they go around the altar. For the most part, two priests are present.
On the altar, there is a tray with a piece of fabric. On the tray, the wedding wreaths (stefana), sugar almonds (koufetes), wedding rings, rose petals, and rice are on it. In addition, there will be a cup of sweet red wine. The altar table is also where the marriage certificate is on, which the couple and koumbaros / koumbara must also sign after the ceremony.
The first part: The engagement ceremony
In this part of the ceremony, the priest prays to God on behalf of the man and the woman. He asks God for his blessing of the wedding rings, and then the priest blesses the bride and groom with the rings. He holds the rings in his right hand and lets the rings touch the bride’s and the groom’s foreheads. He switches between the woman and the man three times, in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit – first from the man to the woman, and then from the woman to the man. This movement and blessing back and forth symbolize that two become one.
The priest then puts the rings on the ring finger on each of the parties’ right hand. The reason that you wear the wedding ring on the right hand in the Greek Orthodox faith is in accordance to the Bible, where God blesses you with his right hand, and you receive eternal life after death. It is also to the right side of God you go in the afterlife.
The rings are now swapped around three times by the best man (koumbaros). He crosses his hands and takes the rings of the couple’s fingers. Then he crosses his hands the other way and back again, so the hand that was first on top, is now at the bottom. In this way, the rings are swapped around three times, but always end up on the right hand of the couple. If there are two koumbari, they each do it three times (starting with the koumbara).
The replacement and exchange of the rings three times symbolizes the weakness of one party being compensated by the strength of the other, and the one’s flaws are corrected by the good deeds of the other. Individually they are incomplete, but together they are perfect, and the bridal couple is thus united by the virtue of marriage.
After replacing the rings, the priest reads a prayer that seals the couple’s acceptance of the rings. A final prayer is read by the priest, and the couple is now engaged to marry in the presence of God, leading to the second part of the wedding ceremony.
The second part: The crowning ceremony / the sacraments of the marriage
Immediately after the engagement ceremony, the priest continues to the wedding ceremony. He begins with lighting two white candles, which symbolize the couple’s spiritual desire to let Christ, the light of the world, cast his blessing and light on them and become part of their lives together. (In some places the couple carry the candles in their hands, but in Kalymnos, the priest lights two candles standing on the floor on either side of the altar).
After lighting the candles, the bridal couple must hold hands (the right hands) while the priest reads three prayers. The prayers are about humanity as being one piece of fabric, all of which are woven together from Adam and Eve, until today’s believers. With the reading of the third prayer, the bride and groom become part of the spiritual substance that connects all orthodox people.
The crowning is the highlight and the most important part of the holy marriage ceremony. The priest takes two crowns or wreaths (stefana), and with them, he blesses the bridal couple in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, after which he puts the wreaths on the heads of the couple. The best man (koumbaros) then exchanges the crowns three times between the couple. If there are two koumbari, they each do it three times (again, starting with the koumbara).
When the crowning has taken place, the priest reads a passage from the Gospel, which tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle in the city of Cana, Galilee. Here he turned water into wine at a wedding party. The transformation from water to wine symbolizes the transformation from old to new, a passage from death to life. After the reading of the Gospel and a few short prayers, the couple is presented with the cup of wine. The wine has been blessed, and it is offered to the couple, who each drinks of the common cup three times. (The rest of the wine is drunk by the koumbaros, since blessed wine must not be wasted).
The priest then takes the Bible in one hand while holding the bride and groom with the other hand, walking the couple three times around the altar. Both koumbari are walking behind the couple, one of which holds the band connecting the two stefana, and the other holds either the bride’s dress or just puts his hand on the shoulder of the first koumbaros. The walk three times around the altar is seen as a religious dance, and it is during this walk that guests throw rice at the wedding couple. It is an important Greek tradition that guests throw rice on the bridal couple, as rice symbolizes fertility and to be rooted positively in life.
For each time the couple walks around the altar, they both kiss the Bible which the other priest is holding in his hands. After the three laps around and the rice-throwing from the guests, the bridal couple’s hands are separated by the Bible, which the priest moves down between the husband and wife. Then the couple is allowed to kiss each other and the ceremony is over.
At weddings you give all of the guests a small gift called bomboniere. This is often tied together with tulle, with sugar-coated almonds inside, which in Greek is called koufeta.
The sugar almonds symbolize five things:
- The white color on the outside symbolizes purity.
- The egg shape of the almond represents fertility.
- The hardness of the almond symbolizes the strength of marriage.
- The sweet taste from the sugar is a symbol of the sweetness of the marriage.
- Finally the number of almonds has a definite meaning. You usually give three, five or seven almonds to each guest (or another odd number). It must be an odd number, because it can not be divided. This can be transferred to the couple, which will also become indivisible after the wedding ceremony.
Often, you hand out the tulle-wrapped sugar almonds to the guests at the church after the ceremony, but many choose to give the gifts at the reception afterwards.
A greeting to all guests
When the couple has become husband and wife, they turn to stand in front of the altar, their backs facing the church. The parents are also standing up there next to the couple in order to greet each of the guests. First, the koumbaros and koumbara greet the couple and the parents by kissing their cheeks (first right, then left).
When they have greeted, they pose beside the couple and the parents to greet the guest as well. Now, the guests form a line, and each comes up to the couple to greet and congratulate them, as well as greeting the parents and the koumbari before they leave the church to go to the party.
The first dance
First, all the guests arrive at the party, and then the bride and groom are the last to appear. Usually, upbeat music is being played while the couple walks towards the venue while all of the guests have taken their seats. Once the couple reaches the dance floor, the music changes and they start dancing their first dance as husband and wife. Afterwards, it’s the groom’s turn to dance with his mother, and finally the bride dances with her father before everyone sits down.
Cutting the wedding cake
In Greece, weddings usually take place in the evening, especially during the summer, otherwise it is too hot to get married. Therefore, it is also a tradition (at least on Kalymnos) that the couple cuts the wedding cake immediately after the first dance. This is to ensure that the wedding cake doesn’t melt in the heat. However, you can choose to do whatever you want, as traditions are not fixed rules.
The couple cuts a piece of the cake with both of them holding the same knife. They put a piece on a plate, where the bride gives her husband a bite with a spoon, after which the groom feeds his wife a bite of the cake with the same spoon. Then the couple pops a bottle of champagne, which is poured into two glasses. The couple drinks from the glasses with one arm crossed over the other. Afterwards, the wedding cake is brought into the kitchen to be cut, so all the guests each get a piece.
Traditional Greek folk dance
Greeks love dancing and partying, especially at weddings. Both during and after the food, the first dances start to take place, where, little by little, people enter the dance floor to form the first chain. There are many kinds of Greek folk dances where people hold hands or place them around each other’s shoulders, while dancing to Greek music from a live band.
Sirtos – Συρτός
This dance is probably one of the most famous Greek dances, which is often danced first at Greek weddings. The dancing is in a circle or in line, holding hands, dancing to the right.
Kalamatianos – Καλαματιανός
Kalamatianos is a popular folk dance that is known all over Greece and Cyprus. It is danced in a circle where the dancers hold hands, and it consists of 12 steps.
Zeimbekiko – Ζεϊμπέκικο
Zeimbekiko is not a dance that is being danced in groups, but often by a single person. Most of the times, it’s danced by men, and at weddings, it is the groom dancing zeimbekiko alone ( his first dance alone). Around him, friends and family are kneeling down as they clap their hands along with the music.