The Ultimate Guide to Greek Wedding Traditions
If you've been to a Greek wedding, it likely left an impression on you. Or maybe your only exposure to Greek weddings is from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Either way, we are here to introduce you to the rich cultural experience that is a Greek wedding. Greek weddings are incredibly joyous occasions. The traditions include a mix of ancient and Orthodox Christian rites. They are serious, yet joyful. Religious, yet superstitious. Traditional, yet leave space to incorporate your own personal touches. Read on to learn about meaningful cultural Greek wedding traditions, and learn more about other cultural traditions around the world. And, na zisete!
A Brief History of Greek Wedding Traditions
Like other aspects of Greek culture, Greek wedding traditions are a rich blend of ancient rites mixed with Byzantine and Orthodox influence... with some superstitions mixed in. Many of the ancient traditions pay homage to the natural world using elements that are readily available in Greece, and have since been adapted to fit with religious symbolism. One such example is the stefana, or crowns, that the couple wears during the religious ceremony. This tradition started out as an ancient wedding custom honoring Aphrodite by wearing wreaths of olive branches and leaves and has since been adapted as a vital part of the Orthodox wedding ceremony.
Greek Pre-Wedding Traditions
Setting the Wedding Date
The first thing to know when planning a Greek wedding in a church is there are certain times of the year that must be avoided. These sacred days take priority over weddings:
Great Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) and Easter
Part of the Nativity Fast, between December 12 and Christmas
The Virgin Mary's holiday and the first two weeks of August
September 14, January 5 and 6, August 29, and Pentecost
The Engagement Party
Greek engagement parties are more than just a party—they often include a small ceremony of their own. In this ceremony, the priest blesses the couple and the rings they are to use. This is where the couple becomes betrothed to one another. This custom was more popular in the past, and now many couples choose to forgo it, but it's a fun way to get your families together to meet one another (and throw another party!). Don't worry if you miss it; it's also the same as the betrothal service that happens at the front end of the wedding ceremony.
Now, on to actual wedding day traditions. Writing on the bride's shoes is a fun tradition (and an alternative to a bouquet toss) that happens while the bride is getting ready. The bride will write the names of her single friends on the bottom of her wedding shoes. According to tradition, whichever names have rubbed off by the end of the evening are the friends who are most likely to get married next.
Greek Wedding Attire
Since the majority of Greek weddings take place in an Orthodox church, modesty, formality, and temperature are several key considerations. Overall, Greek wedding attire is somewhat similar to that of the United States, with the bride wearing a white dress and veil and the groom wearing a suit or tux. Brides don't necessarily need to wear full-coverage dresses, but still be respectful of the setting. Overskirts and detachable sleeves can provide a more modest look in the church that can be removed for the reception.
As a guest, it's best to err on the side of formality and modesty. On average, Greeks tend to dress up quite a bit for formal occasions, so don't be afraid to look a little extra. Clothes for a wedding don't need to be as modest as a regular Sunday church service, but if you plan on wearing a more revealing outfit, consider bringing a shawl or cardigan for the ceremony portion.
Another consideration for weddings in Greece is the temperature. Churches in Greece tend not to be heavily air-conditioned, and for summer weddings, the heat can be a bit stifling. Loose and light clothing is best, especially for men wearing suits. Don't say we didn't warn you!
Finally, most Greek weddings in Greece don't have a wedding party besides the koumbaro and/or koumbara, so don't expect to see a wedding party in matching dresses or suits. Greek-American weddings do tend to include a wedding party.
Greek Wedding Ceremony
The Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony is rich with unique and meaningful traditions. It is a beautiful ceremony that consists of two parts: the betrothal service and the crowning service. During both parts of the ceremony, there are several scripture readings and important actions that take place. You will also notice that every rite happens in groups of three, which has important symbolism in the Orthodox Church as it represents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Typically, personal vows are not included in the Greek wedding ceremony, which can be a positive or a negative depending on how much you like public speaking. Finally, the kiss is not formally written into the ceremony, so most priests will add it on at the end of the ceremony. For a full list of ceremony traditions, check out these Greek wedding ceremony basics.
The Wedding Entrance
The Greek walk into the church and down the aisle differs from the American tradition. In the Greek tradition, the bride walks with her father, closely accompanied by other family members and friends, to the doors of the church. There, the groom waits for her, kisses her father's hand as a sign of respect, and then the bride and groom walk into the church together, followed by the rest of their guests, and then the ceremony begins. This could be a great alternative for a bride who doesn't wish to be walked down the aisle by just her father.
Koumbaro and/or Koumbara (Sponsor or Best Man/Maid of Honor)
A key player in the Greek wedding ceremony is the koumbaro and/or koumbara, or sponsor. This person or couple will stand at the altar with the bride and groom and perform actions at important parts of the ceremony. Acting as koumbaro or koumbara is a high honor. According to tradition, brides and grooms will ask their godparents, but many choose to ask a sibling or close friend instead. Traditionally, the koumbaro or koumbara eventually acts as the godparent for the couple's firstborn child.
Lambades (Candles) and Wedding Table
An important part of the ceremony is the lighting of candles, or lambades—one for the bride and one for the groom. The lambades symbolize the light of God, and the couple holding them symbolizes their willingness to accept God into their lives. The koumbaro/a is responsible for getting the lambades, in addition to a quality tray for the marriage table, where the priest rests lambades and other important religious items on.
Stefana (Wedding Crowns)
The highlight of the service is the exchange of two crowns, or stefana: one for the bride and one of the groom. Stefana have actually been used since ancient times, when they were made from olive branches, lemon blossoms and vine leaves, all of which were plants devoted to Aphrodite. These crowns still resemble wreaths made of branches and leaves, but are often gold or silver and are connected by a white ribbon symbolizing unity. The stefana symbolize the glory and honor bestowed on the couple by God during the sacrament of marriage, and how they will be king and queen of their own kingdom. The priest blesses the stefana in the name of the Holy Trinity and places them on the couple's heads. The koumbaro/a then exchanges them three times to seal the union.
The Common Cup
The couple takes three sips from the common cup, which symbolizes their mutual sharing of both joy and sorrow in life. The common cup is filled with a blessed wine, similar to communion. Unlike Catholic ceremonies where all chrismated guests can receive communion, only the bride and groom participate in this ritual.
The Dance of Isaiah
After drinking from the common cup, the priest leads the couple around the marriage table three times. This "dance" celebrates the couples' first steps together. It's traditional at this point in time for the bride and groom's mothers to throw flower petals at them.
Greek Post-Ceremony and Reception Traditions
The Receiving Line
At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom, their families, the koumbaro/a, and any wedding party will line up at the back of the church and guests will greet them as they file out. This is the time when guests will embrace the couple and give their best wishes to them. It's customary to say, "Na zisete", or "May you live!" This is also the point where you can dry "spit" (or say "ftou ftou") on the couple to ward off evil.
Another ancient tradition that still persists today is throwing rice at the couple as they exit the church. Rice is considered a symbol of prosperity… and, as you may have guessed, fertility. Make sure to check with the church first, as this tradition calls for a lot of cleanup!
On to one of the most fun parts of the reception—the dancing. Greek dancing is an essential part of a Greek party, and particularly weddings. The reception will get started with both the bride and groom leading a dance, followed by their families, the koumbaro/a, and the wedding party, if applicable. These dances are typically the syrto, the most popular Greek dance style, set to one of the many Greek wedding songs.
After all the key players lead a dance, the rest of the wedding guests will be invited to the dance floor. As the night progresses, a variety of different songs and styles may be played, including traditional and modern songs, regional dances from the bride and grooms' areas of origin. There will likely be a zeibekiko played at some point, an improvised solo dance typically performed by a male (with the help of some alcohol). If you haven't Greek danced before, we suggest checking out some YouTube videos to learn.
The Money Dance
Like many Latin cultures, a Greek wedding will often include a money dance, where friends and family will throw dollar bills at the couple as they dance. This tradition originated from villages in Greece where guests would pin money on the bride as she danced. Today, it's often seen at Greek American weddings, but not as typically in Greece.
Greek Traditional Wedding Foods
Koufeta and Bomboniere
An essential part of a Greek or Italian wedding is koufeta, or Jordan Almonds, sugar-coated almonds that symbolize both the sweetness and bitterness the couple will experience in life. These almonds are wrapped together as a party favor called a bomboniere. The bomboniere are wrapped in groups of five almonds—an odd number that can't be evenly divided, just as the couple should not be divided. These almonds represent five wishes: health, wealth, happiness, family, and a long life together.
Greek Post-Wedding Traditions
To Krevati (The Marital Bed)
After the wedding, the couple will head to their wedding bed, which will have been decorated earlier in the week before the wedding by their friends and family. The marriage bed is decorated with rose petals, jewels, and glitter, as well as money (to symbolize prosperity) and rice (to symbolize putting down roots). It's also considered good luck to put a baby on the bed during the decorating.
O Minas Tou Melitos (The Honeymoon)
Like many other cultures, Greek couples traditionally take a honeymoon trip immediately following their wedding. Called the minas tou melitos, it literally translates to "month of honey." Nowadays, couples may not get a full month, but many enjoy an extended trip to either the islands or abroad.
Greek Wedding Tradition Frequently Asked Questions
How long does a Greek wedding celebration last?
Greek weddings—and activities in general—tend to be more drawn out than they are in the States. This starts with the ceremony, which at 45 minutes to one hour, tends to last longer than the average American ceremony. Receptions typically last long into the night and early hours in the morning. If you're attending a Greek wedding in America, expect the party to go past midnight. If you're attending a wedding in Greece, 4:00 to 6:00 a.m. may be more likely.
What are traditional Greek wedding gifts?
As with most weddings, money is typically the most customary gift. Greeks tend to be generous when it comes to both hosting and attending weddings, so if it's in your means, err on the side of giving more. Other customary wedding gifts include sweets and jewelry.