Greeks are famous for their elaborate weddings – in fact, there’s even a famous movie about Greek Weddings. In a culture that celebrates family above all, every milestone in life brings people together, and none are more important than weddings. In this post we take a look at Cretan Wedding Customs.
A Greek wedding is not merely a church ceremony and a reception afterward – it is a progression of important events that bring the entire community together, and then a party like you have never seen. In Crete, imagine all of this, but Cretan-style – which means more of everything: more feasting, more music, more togetherness.
Of course, weddings can happen at almost any time throughout the year, but, like elsewhere throughout the world, the summer months are a favourite time to get married. In Crete, because the celebrations are so large, they almost always must be held outdoors so there is room to accommodate the many, many guests.
When Most do Cretan Weddings take Place?
The Spring and Summer have the perfect weather for a large Cretan Wedding and get-together. But many days on the calendar are not suitable, such as the period of Lent before Easter, the two weeks preceding the Assumption of the Virgin. Saturday is the usual day so that people have time to travel to the wedding.
Cretan Wedding Traditions – A Momentous Event in Traditional Life
In an island of such large extended families and many villages, village weddings bring people from the surrounding area and even much further away for a grand celebration. Besides the Patron Saint’s Day festivals each village celebrates, weddings are the social glue that bring generations together. It was for many decades and still is for many people the main occasion for socialising, with locals attending several weddings each summer season.
The Wedding Preparations
A Cretan wedding is a big event and there is lots to do beforehand with special festivity.
Cretans love a festivity. The wedding celebrations actually start with issuing the invitations, an event in itself. In traditional villages, wedding invitations are sometimes issued in person, accompanied of course by a little raki to toast the health of the couple. And speaking of toasts, the usual toast to a couple is “Kala Stefana!” which means – “Happy Wreaths” the “Stefana” are the wreaths placed on the heads of the bride and groom during the ceremony. Also, since this is Crete, there will probably be a little music.
The Marriage Bed
The Thursday before the wedding takes place, women in the family and close female friends and neighbours will gather at the couple’s home-to-be – although now very often couples may already be living together, this is still a custom. The women then make the bed decoratively, then visitors – men and women both – come and throw money on it for good luck.
The Night Before the Wedding
Like in many countries, the night before a Cretan wedding the Bride celebrates with her female friends and the Groom celebrates with his male friends. Part of the festivities are preparing the bride and groom. The best man shaves the groom – a symbol of trust. The bride’s friends do her hair. All of this is accompanied by special songs, then, of course, music and dancing.
The Morning of the Wedding
After probably very little sleep indeed, the bride and groom get ready in their separate homes. Then they meet, along with the “Koumbari” – the best man or maid of honour – and there is a festive procession of the whole wedding party, accompanied by music from the lyra and the laouto, as they go to church.
Cretan Wedding Customs
The Wedding Ceremony at the Church
In the Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony, many people are close to the altar. The bride and groom are there with the koumbaros or the koumbara – this is the person who actually joins the couple, linking the “stefana” on their respective heads, and joining them in a procession around the wedding table. But also close by are the ‘paranifakia’ and the paragambri’- the little girls and little boys of the family, festively dressed. Of course the parents are also as close as they can be.
On leaving the church all guests are presented with a ‘boubouniera’ (wedding favour) – this is a bundle of tulle filled with white sugared almonds (“coufeta”). The coufeta are either five in number – to represent health, happiness, fertility, longevity, and prosperity, or seven – to represent the divine mysteries of the Greek Orthodox Church. In any event, the number must be an odd number rather than an even one – a number which cannot be divided in half. A small memento of the day a tiny icon, perhaps, is tied to the bundle.
After the Wedding – The Feast
By now, long tables will be set up in the village square to accommodate the many guests. How many? 500 counts as a ‘small’ wedding in Crete. The traditional menu is simple and delicious and perfect for feeding a large crowd. “Gamopilafo” – wedding pilaf – is goat long simmered and rice cooked in the flavourful broth, finished with some rich “stakovoutiro” – fresh goats’ butter. This is served with black pepper and it looks plain but tastes fantastic. It is cooked in enormous pots that the community has for such occasions, or that professional cooks bring. It is heavy work and takes many hands.
Often, the meat for the feast is from the family’s own animals. In fact, everything is from the family if they have it – the whole wheels of graviera, the wine, the tsikoudia, and everything else. Salads accompany the meat and pilaf.
For sweets, there is graviers smothered with thyme honey, and there are ‘kserotigana’ – whisper thin dough in rolls, fried crisp and then dipped in honey syrup and dusted with chopped walnuts.
Cretan music is famously fast and invigorating. Family and guests often tip the band.
It is not at all strange to give an envelope of cash to the new couple – in fact it’s customary. Cretans are quite generous. The new couple can end up with lots of money, and they will spend their married lives similarly giving generous wedding gifts to help other couples start out in life.
There are also gifts from the couple to their guests – as they leave, guests are given more ‘kserotigana’, perhaps some nuts, and a wedding “koulouri” – a large sesame bread ring.
After the Wedding Night
The morning after the wedding, the new couple meet at the village fountain with a wedding koulouri of their own. They break it in half under the fountain, each pulling on it. Whoever has the larger piece will have the larger say in the marriage! Crete is known as much for strong women as it is for strong men.
As you drive across Crete you are likely to see a wedding in one village or another on a weekend – it offers a wonderful taste of authentic Cretan life! Did you know about the unique Cretan wedding customs?
Special thanks to the amazing Cretan Videographer Alexandros Ktistakis for providing the wedding pictures of this post.