“Hey Angelo,” people often shout at me in the street, “what really happens at a big fat Greek wedding?”*
“Glad you asked, random stranger,” I always reply with a tip of my hat. “Glad you asked…”**
So, by popular demand, here is my guide to big fat Greek weddings.
Actually, wait a sec. Before I begin, let’s get one thing out of the way.
We don’t smash plates.
Sorry to be the one to ‘shatter’ (see what I did there?) that particular illusion, but that’s just how it is.
Anyway, for anyone who has ever wondered, here is a guide to what really happens at a big fat Greek wedding…
The Dressing Ceremony
This is a very old tradition, although not everyone does it.
In fact I don’t think anybody in Cyprus even bothers with this anymore, let alone anywhere else.
Basically, on the morning of the wedding, the friends and family of the Bride and Groom go to their houses. They stand in a circle, the Bride or Groom stands in the middle, music is played, and the fun begins!
Firstly, the Maid of Honour/Best Man will dress the Bride/Groom in their wedding garments, although nowadays this really only consists of putting on the Groom’s blazer or the Bride’s veil. Presumably that’s because not everyone likes to be naked in front of their family and friends.
Years ago, in the villages in Cyprus, the Best Man would also shave the Groom, although most people don’t opt for that anymore. A bleeding face screams a lot of things, but ‘Please marry me’ isn’t one of them.
The Kabnistiri and the Red Scarf
After the dressing is all done, each of the family members will take it in turns to bless the Bride or Groom with the kabnistiri, which is a small vessel – usually silver – in which olive leaves are burned.
(This might not sound very nice, but the smell is genuinely amazing.)
Then a red scarf is wrapped around the waist of the Bride/Groom, three times each, by members of their family.
This symbolises fertility, so if you ever get married to a Greek and don’t want kids, maybe avoid this step.
Best Men (Koumbari) and Best Women (Koumeres)
Why have one Best Man/Woman, when you can have ninety? seems to be the theory behind this particular tradition. There’s still a ‘best’ Best Man and ‘best’ Maid of Honour, but then loads of other slightly less ‘best’ people too.
It’s a pretty good trade-off for the couple really – they get money from all these ‘best people’ (and get to set the amount), and in return they give each of them a small flower.
The flowers themselves have significance too. Single people wear them upside down, meaning they’re free [insert John Inman joke here], and those in relationships wear them the right way up, meaning they’re the opposite of free. So, trapped, I guess.
There is of course always a ‘hilarious’ person who’ll wear the flower upside down even though they’re in a relationship. It all gets very wacky, as you can imagine.
The Church – Exchanging the Rings
A key feature of the marriage ceremony itself is the exchanging of the rings.
This is where the Koumbari and Koumeres go up to the front of the Church and exchange the rings of the Bride and Groom (as in, they exchange the rings with each other – they don’t exchange them for other, cheaper rings.)
If you ever do this, make sure above all else that you do not drop the ring. There’s always somebody that pretends to – usually the same guy in a relationship but wearing his flower upside down – but it wouldn’t be a good idea to actually do it.
Not unless you want to be chased out of the Church by a bunch of angry Greeks.
All named Nick.
The Church – The Crowns
During the ceremony the Greek Orthodox priest takes two ‘crowns’ which are joined with ribbon and swaps them three times (to signify the Holy Trinity) on the heads of the couple.
The priest then walks the couple around a table at the altar, again three times.
At this point it’s traditional for the Koumbari to slap the back of the Groom. Most of them choose to do this as hard as they can as a show of either machismo or anger. I can’t always tell which.
This can get pretty painful for the poor Groom. A friend of mine got married two months ago and still can’t sleep on his back.
The Church – Sugared almonds
At the altar is a tray of sugared almonds tied with red ribbon. Back in the village, single people would place the sugared almond from a wedding under their pillow that night and dream of their future betrothed.
Nowadays people just eat the almonds, throw away the ribbon, and use a dating app.
Whatever works, I suppose.
The Reception and Wedding Breakfast
The reception at a Greek wedding is the same as the reception at any wedding in the world – a bunch of people wolfing down canapes, moaning about having nowhere to sit, and drinking way too much free booze.
Later, once everyone has staggered into the main room and taken their seats for the wedding breakfast, the band loudly announce the Bride and Groom, who come in and walk around the dance floor three times.
At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. At one wedding I went to, the Bride and Groom walked around once, plonked themselves down at the head table, and started eating the dips.
None of us complained. It meant we could all start eating too.
Hey, it’s not called a big fat Greek wedding for nothing…
The Money Dance
This involves the Bride and Groom slow dancing as their guests pin money on them – which is why putting on weight before the wedding (so as to increase surface area) is probably a good idea.
Surprisingly, the dance can actually be less fun than it sounds, probably because being surrounded by a hundred people stabbing you with pins is quite, well, painful. The heat inside the circle of aforementioned people also gets to highs of about 30-40 thousand degrees (give or take), so it’s not the most comfortable environment to be in.
But hey, you’ve got money pinned all over you, get over it.
Cutting the Cake
Possibly the most pointless part of any wedding in the world.
The Bride and Groom cut the cake = approximately three seconds.
Then everyone takes pictures = ten minutes.
The result is what can only be described as a plethora of increasingly desperate facial expressions and actions, as the Bride and Groom try to work out exactly what they’re supposed to be doing in between cutting the cake and everybody going away again.
I’ve been to weddings where the couple have just repeatedly cut the cake, in an attempt to do something.
The end result looked like a massacre in a bakery.
Later in the night, the Bride and her Koumeres all do a dance together. It’s called the Kalamathkianon, and is all very nice and civilised. Cue lots of hip-twisting, hand-moving and general showboating.
The serious showboating comes later however, when the Groom and his Koumbari take to the floor in a display of what some may call ‘dancing’, but what is probably more accurately described as ‘a bunch of drunk Greeks, kicking’.
It starts with the Groom dancing with each Koumbaro in turn, although this inevitably ends up as a big free for all.
One of the best dances at this point of the evening is the Zembekiko (also known as the ‘drunk man’s dance’). If I had to choose a favourite type of Greek dance, then this would be it.
It’s maudlin, melancholy, and you make it up as you go along.
What’s not to like?
The end of the night
This is where all the old Greeks get up to dance, and all the young Greeks run up to them and slap money on their heads.
(Notes, not coins. That would be mean.)
At the end of the night, the money is all collected and given to the band. This comes from the old tradition of ‘tipping’ the band, which is another way of helping out the newlyweds (as the more money the guests pay the band, the less the couple have to). Not sure where the sticking money to peoples’ actual heads thing came from, but I’m sure there’s a tradition behind that too somewhere.
This part of the night is also where my Uncle Chris usually gets up and dances with a glass of whisky balanced on his head. We’re pretty sure he uses some kind of adhesive, but nobody’s managed to catch him applying it yet…
So, there you have it – what happens at an actual, genuine big fat Greek wedding.
There’s other stuff too of course – arguments over table plans, older female relatives who look like Joe Pesci – but I just wanted to give a brief outline of what to expect.
And not a smashed plate in sight.
*This has literally never happened to me. Or anyone, probably.
**Obviously this part is false too. Although to be fair I do sometimes wear a hat.