Our neighbours invited us to a celebrate their first wedding anniversary, a wedding that included a number of Greek traditions. As I knew tradition was important to them, I looked to buy them a traditional gift to take to the party. Firstanniversarygifts.co.uk has dozens of ideas and inspired me to gift them the coffee-table book about Greece that matched the traditional anniversary gift of paper.
Here I’ve written about some of the symbolism in the Greek Orthodox marriage tradition. It is not all about plate smashing!
Setting the wedding date
The months of January and June are considered good months for marriage due to links back to the ancient Greeks, where January was the month dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus and the goddess of marriage and fertility. The Romans later translated Hera to Juno and dedicated the month of June to her.
Before the wedding ceremony
There’s a ritual of making up the marital bed the day before the wedding that some families still do today. In the couple’s marital bed are thrown money, sweets, rice and almond each symbolic of the commitment they are making to each other. As a blessing of fertility, a baby is then rolled on the bed and it is said that the couples first child will be the same gender as the baby who rolled the blessing.
Koumbaro and koumbara
The best man, or koumbaro helps the groom prepare for the wedding and the koumbara, or maid of honour, helps the bride to dress and be prepared for her big day.
The Greek Orthodox ceremony
Greek Orthodox Church marriage ceremony is divided into two parts, both of which take place at a small matrimonial altar on which there’s a tray holding the wedding crowns, the betrothal rings, a couple of candles, wine, and a bible.
The priest blesses the rings three times, then the bride three times and then the groom three times. The rings are then placed on the tips of the ring fingers on the right hands of both the bride and groom. Then, the koumbaros exchanges the rings three times between the bride and groom. Three relates to the holy trinity and the exchange assures the couple they complement each other.
At the end of the betrothal service, the bride and groom are each given a lit white candle, which they hold for the rest of the service. The candle is symbolic of God’s light and a reminder for the couple to stay within that light. The candles must be completely used so can be left in the church to burn out, or be taken home. What is important is that they never be thrown away.
The marriage service
After the first part of the service, the priest takes the two matrimonial crowns, known as stefana, and first crowns the groom and then, taking the second stefana which is attached to the first by a length of ribbon, crowns the bride. The koumbaros then exchanges the crowns between the bride and groom three times. The crowns symbolically tie the couple together for the rest of their lives.
Two readings follow, the couple take their first steps as a wedded couple as they walk around the matrimonial altar three times. There’s a final blessing, the crowns are removed and the service is ended with a final prayer.
Generally, wedding receptions are spirited and involve a lot of dancing. The bride celebrates by leading a raucous dance known as the kalamatiano where the entire bridal party joins hands and skips in a circle. Other dances are the sirtaki, the tsamiko and the rowdy zebekiko and there are more that are linked to particular families or regions.
Fresh almonds with a sugar coating are sometimes part of the couples wedding, representing purity, fertility and endurance. They are either thrown on the marital bed with the money and rice, eaten by the bridal party whilst getting ready or handed out as favours.
Hollywood would have you believe this happens at every single Greek wedding and while that may have been true at one time, it is now officially banned in many places.