Wedding Traditions in Greece

The bride and groom are joined by the traditional crowns called Stefana.
The bride and groom are joined by the traditional crowns called Stefana.

If you are looking for a culture whose weddings are steeped in tradition, full of joy, and lively as can be, look no further than Greece! Greek weddings are big, exciting events, packed with family, food, and dancing, as well as a beautiful marriage ceremony full of meaningful symbolism. These are some of the wedding traditions and customs which are popular in Greek weddings, whether they take place in Greece itself or in the new country of a bride or groom with Greek heritage.

Greek Engagement Customs

An engagement is a big deal in a Greek family, and a cause for great celebration. In most families, the groom still takes the traditional step of asking the bride's father for her hand in marriage. A charming part of the custom is that the groom will re-ask the bride's parents for permission to marry her on the morning of the wedding. Of course, it is merely a formality at that point, but it is charming all the same. The diamond engagement ring is not customary in Greece. It is traditional for both the man and the woman to wear a simple gold band when they officially become engaged. The rings are blessed by a Greek Orthodox priest before the newly engaged couple slips them on to their left ring fingers. The engagement bands will also serve as the wedding rings, and they are transferred to the right hand during the marriage ceremony. In Greek-American families, the couple may decide to adopt the American custom of a diamond engagement ring worn with a separate wedding band for the bride.

Dowries have long been banned in Greece, but a variation on the custom has survived. Greek parents no longer give large sums of cash or other valuables to their daughter's future husband, however the mother of the bride will often amass a “dowry” of household goods. Collected over many years, the sheets, tablecloths, and other household items will be given to the newlyweds to help furnish their first home. In a custom called nyphostoli, local women volunteer to set up the newlyweds' house. They use the items in the dowry to set up and decorate for the bride and groom. Other things may also take place during the nyphostoli, specifically old rituals which are supposed to bless the new marriage with fertility and abundance. One such custom is for the women decorating the house to bring along their babies to roll on the marital bed to ensure fertility. They may also sprinkle the bed with rose petals, coins, and almonds (presumably after the baby-rolling!). These old customs are not always included in modern Greek weddings, but they are still practiced in more rural regions.

The Koumbaros has many responsibilities, including paying for the Lambathes.
The Koumbaros has many responsibilities, including paying for the Lambathes.

The Koumbaros Is Much More Than A Best Man

When a couple becomes engaged, one of the most important things to be done is to pick their Koumbaros. This man will serve in a role similar to that of the best man, only with many more responsibilities, both spiritual and financial. While the best man is a witness to the marriage ceremony, the Koumbaros plays an active and very integral role in the proceedings. Traditionally, the groom's godfather was honored with the role of Koumbaros, although now any very close male relative or friend could be asked to fill the role. Sometimes a woman will be chosen, and she is called a Koumbara. Because of the duties which the Koumbaros has during the marriage ceremony, it is absolutely mandatory that he be a member in good standing of the Greek Orthodox Church. When the newlyweds are blessed with their first baby, the Koumbaros will usually be invited to be the child's godfather.

Beyond his participation in the wedding ceremony, the Koumbaros has many additional responsibilities. Surprising, perhaps, to those unfamiliar with Greek wedding customs, the Koumbaros actually bears some of the financial burden of the wedding. He is to pay for the tip to the Priest, buy the bonbonerie (traditionally these are koufeta - sugared almonds given as wedding favors), the Lambathes (altar candles), and the stefana, which are the crowns worn by the bride and groom. The job of the Koumbaros does not end there. There is an old custom that the Koumbaros is to escort the groom to the bride's parents before the wedding. The father of the bride offers the groom a tray of sweet basil leaves as a wish for a future full of good fortune. He then presents the groom with a glass of wine and a ring shaped cake. The groom drinks the wine, eats half the cake, and drops a few coins into the empty wine glass to show that he is willing and able to support his soon-to-be wife. The Koumbaros then takes the other half of the cake to the bride and helps her put on her wedding shoes. The position of Koumbaros is one of great honor, but also great responsibility, so careful thought should be given to his selection.

The interiors of Greek Orthodox churches are rich with iconography and symbolism.
The interiors of Greek Orthodox churches are rich with iconography and symbolism.

Greek Orthodox Weddings Begin With The Service Of The Betrothal

Another customary part of the Greek pre-wedding festivities is the Koumparo. This is the time during which the groom gets ready before the marriage ceremony, which is done with the accompaniment of traditional Greek musicians. When he is ready, the musicians will escort the groom on foot to the church. They then go to the home of the bride and fetch her to the church; what a wonderful way to begin the wedding celebration! It is customary for the groom and all of the wedding guests to wait outside the church for the bride to arrive with her musical accompaniment. Upon the bride's arrival, the groom hands her the bridal bouquet and they enter the church and process down the aisle together. Unlike at American weddings, Greek weddings are not separated into the bride's side and the groom's side. It is understood that the first few rows are reserved for immediate family, and beyond that, everyone takes a seat wherever they like.

A Greek Orthodox wedding is a truly breathtaking event. The churches are usually very ornately decorated with colorful iconography and stained glass. The elaborate use of symbolism and iconography are visible symbols of faith and are very much a part of the Greek Orthodox tradition. The marriage ceremony itself is just as moving as the church. There are two main sections to a Greek Orthodox wedding. The first is The Service of the Betrothal. The bride and groom will be given a pair of lit candles to hold which symbolize the eternal light of Christ. This portion of the wedding is centered around the ring exchange. The gold bands which the bride and groom started wearing when they became engaged are blessed by the priest and then placed on the third finger of the right hand. The Koumbaros then takes the rings and switches them back and forth over the couple's hands three times before they are finally slipped into place. Many of the Greek Orthodox marriage rituals take place three times, due to the powerful symbolism of the Holy Trinity.

The crowning ceremony
The crowning ceremony

The Dance of Isaiah

The Crowning And Dance Of Isaiah

Perhaps the most iconic and unique feature of a Greek Orthodox wedding is the crowning. The crowns, also called stefana, are blessed by the priest. Then the Koumbaros passes each crown back and forth over the bride and groom's heads three times, much as he did with the wedding rings. The stefana are placed on the couple's heads, and are linked together by a ribbon. Stefana can be ornate metal crowns or fresh floral wreaths. They can be special heirlooms passed down from mother to daughter, and the bride may wear bridal jewelry chosen to complement the marriage crown. The crowning ceremony is intended to represent the blessings that God has bestowed upon the lucky couple, and of course the linking ribbon stands for the unbreakable bond between the bride and groom.

The importance of the number three continues throughout the rest of The Ceremony of the Sacrament of Marriage. During the offering of the common cup, the bride and groom each drink three times from the shared cup of wine. This is followed by the circling of the ceremonial table, sometimes called the Dance of Isaiah, is another key ritual in a Greek Orthodox wedding. This is another part of the ceremony which calls for the involvement of the Koumbaros. The priest leads the couple around the altar table three times to symbolize their first steps together as man and wife following in the path of the Gospel. Circles, of course, also represent eternity, in this case the eternal bond of the bride and groom. The Koumbaros walks behind the bride and groom holding their crowns in place. The Dance of Isaiah is a moment of great joy and celebration, and is accompanied by traditional hymns, as well as tossing of rice and sometimes flower petals. It is at the end of this part of the ceremony when the crowns are removed, the priest separates the bride and groom's hands, and the marriage ceremony concludes.

By entering the church together, the Greek Orthodox bride and groom make their marriage pledge - no vows are recited.
By entering the church together, the Greek Orthodox bride and groom make their marriage pledge - no vows are recited.

The Ceremony Of The Sacrament Of Marriage

Following The Service of the Betrothal is The Ceremony of the Sacrament of Marriage. This portion of the marriage ceremony has the following elements:


Petitions and prayers

The Crowning

New Testament readings (specifically about the marriage of Cana)

Offering of the common cup

Circling of the ceremonial table

Benediction


One thing that is noticeably different about a Greek Orthodox wedding is the absence of the exchange of wedding vows. In this faith, it is believed that the presence of the bride and groom together in the church is their pledge and commitment to the marriage. At the conclusion of the opening prayers, the priest symbolically joins the hands of the bride and groom together. They remain clasped for the rest of the marriage ceremony to represent the union of two into one. At the end of the circling of the ceremonial table, the priest blesses the couple once more and separates their hand using a Bible, as a reminder that no one other than God can ever break their union. It is a literal representation of a Bible verse often used in Christian weddings of various denominations: What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:6, ASV)

Dancing is an important part of Greek weddings.
Dancing is an important part of Greek weddings.

Greek Wedding Receptions Are Lively Family Gatherings

The end of the marriage ceremony signals the start of the wedding reception, which in the Greek tradition is a really fun party. There is feasting, dancing, and singing of traditional songs. Dishes might be smashed for good luck, especially once the ouzo gets flowing. In some parts of Greece, it is still customary for guests to pin money to the bride's dress, although in the cities, this tradition has largely been replaced by the more discreet handing of an envelope to the bride. Just as the Greek marriage ceremony would not be complete without the Dance of Isaiah, nor would any Greek wedding reception be complete without the traditional circle dance called the Kalamatianos. The dance begins with just the newlyweds dancing alone together while each holds one end of a scarf. It is the job of the ever-busy Koumbaros to get the rest of the guests out on the dance floor, until the bride and groom are dancing in the center of a large circle of cheering dancers. The circle dance is one of the most festive moments in a Greek wedding reception, much like the Hora at a Jewish wedding. The Kalamatianos is definitely one of the highlights of the wedding, and everyone is expected to get out on the dance floor and join in the fun!

And of course, the food is amazing, often with relatives bringing their special recipes to the reception in a delicious attempt to outdo one another. The very traditional Greek wedding cake is made of honey, sesame seeds, and quince. These days, however, a favorite cake is a flourless almond cake filled with vanilla custard and fruit, and covered with sliced almonds. Speaking of almonds, the sugared almonds which are the customary favor at a Greek wedding have very important meaning. What makes sugared or candy coated almonds such a classic wedding favor is that they represent both the bitter (the almond) and the sweet (the sugar) in life. The hope is that the sweet coating will bring the newlyweds a life which is more sweet than bitter. The koufetta are always given in odd numbers, because they are indivisible, just like the newlyweds.

Opa!

A final important custom which everyone should know about Greek weddings is the exuberant shouting of Opa! at frequent intervals is the ultimate expression of joy and happiness. It is hooray, wonderful, and cheers all rolled into one excited shout. A statement of euphoria, wishes for a great happiness, and an all-around toast to life, Opa! is the perfect expression of the atmosphere of merriment and celebration which surround all Greek weddings.

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