If you grew up in a Greek community or the Greek Orthodox Church, you know exactly what to expect at a Greek wedding. But if you’re attending a Greek wedding for the first time, there are details about the symbolism in an Orthodox ceremony to know, as well as customs and traditions that make a Greek wedding such a grand celebration.
"At a Greek wedding, you have to realize that there is the Orthodox Church way and then there are Greek cultural wedding traditions," says event planner Maria Corvallis. "They are sometimes thought of as the same but keep in mind there are Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, and others as part of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. As for any Orthodox wedding ceremony itself, you can't design your wedding, you have to follow the liturgy. But there are small elements to affect in and around the wedding."
"In the Orthodox Church, vows are not exchanged because the couple's commitment is to God to care for one another," says Father Papadopolous. "They promise God that they will love unconditionally. This is why the couple does not face each other but rather forward to the altar, that is to say, towards Christ. The wedding service is formal but not in a stiff way."
Meet the Expert
- Maria Corvallis is President and Creative Director of Peter Corvallis Productions in Portland, OR. A life-long member of the Greek Orthodox Church, she has planned scores of Greek Orthodox weddings and is an expert in Greek protocols and customs.
- Father Panteleimon Papadopolous is the parish priest of the Holy Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church in Brookville, NY, part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He served for 18 years as Archdeacon to the Archbishop, traveling internationally to serve the organization. He holds a Master of Divinity and was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Elpidophoros of America in 2019.
Here are a few common questions asked by guests invited to a Greek wedding:
- What should I wear to the ceremony? The Greek Orthodox Sacrament of Marriage can only be performed in a Greek Orthodox church, chapel or cathedral. So, think, "Sunday best." No jeans. Follow the dress code on the invitation. Greeks like to wear beautiful clothes and usually lean towards a formal look. If ladies want to wear pants, a dressy pantsuit is perfect.
- What is the ceremony etiquette? Even though Greek receptions are lively, the ceremony is solemn and respectful. You may be given a detailed ceremony program or follow the crowd for cues on when to stand and sit. As you enter the church, the bride’s guests sit on the left.
- How long is a Greek wedding ceremony? Figure about 45 minutes to an hour in church.
- When is the sacrament prohibited? Greeks like to get married in spring and summer. There are some days when the sacrament is not permitted: The Epiphany, Holy Week, during the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Lenten Season, several high-holy days in summer and the day before any significant feast day. There are exceptions, so it’s up to the priest who is officiating the marriage.
- Should I bring a gift? Certainly! Anything from their registry, a gift certificate or cash gift is always welcome.
Read on to learn about the Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony and Greek traditions.
Koumbaro and the Koumbara
The Greek Orthodox Church requires that the couple (who must both be Orthodox) appoint Orthodox Christian wedding sponsors in good standing with the Church. They are to be guides for the couple throughout their marriage and will likely be future godparents of the couple's children. The Koumbaro is the male sponsor of the union and is always the best man. The female is called the Koumbara and will be the maid or matron of honor. Non-Orthodox friends are allowed to be in the wedding party but cannot be sponsors. These sponsors were traditionally responsible for gifting the couple the silver tray on the wedding table that holds the bride and groom's crowns and rings. Today many couples don't wish to collect silver, so the silver tray may not be present. The crowns, rings and two decorated white candles are required to be on the wedding table.
Bride’s Wedding Shoes
In some areas of Greece, the groom gives the bride her wedding shoes as a gift. The Koumbaro delivers them to her while she is getting ready, and then a whole charade plays out as the bride insists that they are too big. The Koumbaro fills the shoes with money to make them fit her until she is satisfied. Finally, all of the unmarried bridesmaids write their names on the soles of the shoes. At the end of the wedding day, the names worn off the shoes are going to be married soon.
In Greece, the bride's arrival is a much-anticipated event, and guests gather outside the church to await her. On her father's arm, she meets her groom at the church doors, and together, they go down the aisle. In the United States, the guests are already seated in the church. The wedding party, including flower girl and ringbearer, precede the bride and her father’s walk down the aisle.
The Sacrament of Marriage
As one of the seven sacraments of the Greek Orthodox Church and one of the most ancient Christian wedding rites, the ceremony is rich with symbolism. The wedding consists of two parts: the Service of Betrothal and the Service of the Crowning. The latter consists of five sections: The Prayers; The Crowning; Readings from Scripture; The Common Cup; and the Dance of Isaiah. Signifying the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit), rituals in the sacrament are done three times.
Service of Betrothal and the Exchanging of Rings
The symbol of the Betrothal is the exchanging of rings. The priest blesses the rings three times and announces that the groom is betrothed to the bride in the name of the Holy Trinity. The priest places the rings on the right-hand fingers of the groom and bride. Yes, it's the right hand not the left, as in the Bible, the right hand represents virtue. The Koumbaro then exchanges the rings between the couple three times, signifying that their two lives are intertwined as one by the grace of the Holy Trinity. Now they are officially betrothed to marry before God.
Lambathes or Candles
The wedding service begins with the lighting of the candles and the Joining of the Hands. The groom and bride are each given a taper candle called Lambathes. The candles are lit to symbolize the willingness of the couple to receive Christ, who will bless them throughout this sacrament.
Joining of The Hands
The priest joins the right hands of the groom and bride as he calls upon God to unify the bride and groom into one mind and body. Prayers are said, asking to grant them a long and peaceful life of health and happiness. Their hands will remain joined throughout the service to show their union.
The Crowning of Stefana
The highlight of the sacrament is called “The Crowning." A single ribbon attaches two crowns, called Stefana, together. When the priest places them on the groom and bride's heads, they are crowned by God as king and queen of their home and founders of a new generation. The crowns are exchanged on their heads three times by the Koumbaro or Koumbara.
The first reading from Scripture is from St. Paul to the Ephesians (5:20-33), describing love and respect. The second by St. John (2:1-12) talks about Christ's first miracle changing water into wine at the wedding Cana of Galilee.
The Common Cup
In remembrance of the miracle at Cana, the groom and bride will sip blessed wine from the same cup or goblet. This act represents that by sharing all of life, their happiness will double and their sorrows will be only half as sad.
Dance of Isaiah
Holding up the book of the Holy Gospel, the priest leads the couple in a ceremonial walk called the Dance of Isaiah. The Koumbaro shows his support for the couple by following closely behind holding the ribbon that joins the Stefana crowns. This "dance" celebrates their first steps as husband and wife.
The priest removes the crowns and asks God for a long and happy life for them. He then lifts the book of the Holy Gospel, bringing it down between the couple's clasped hands as a reminder that only God can separate them from one another. It is a spiritual reference that through the Gospel, Christ will always be their way back to each other should they begin to drift. A first kiss is not part of the Orthodox ceremony, however, the priest will allow for this expression of love.
Koufeta are white sugar-coated almonds (Jordan Almonds). The white symbolizes purity and the egg shape represents fertility and new life. The hard almond is a symbol of the endurance of marriage and the sugar coating is a promise of a sweet life together. For wedding favors, the bride and her bridesmaids always wrap an odd number of koufeta in netting or bonbonnieres. The odd numbers are indivisible, so it symbolizes that the couple will remain undivided. It is a Greek tradition for an unmarried woman to tuck the koufeta under her pillow so she will dream of her future husband.
At more traditional weddings, the Greek band will play songs and exuberant group dances wind their way around the reception space. Most receptions are a mixture of styles and generations paying homage to their Greek roots and traditions while also celebrating in a modern way. In smaller Greek villages, there is an old tradition of pinning money to the bride’s dress at the reception during a special dance. In America, this tradition is more of a “showering” of a gift. When the couple dances near, the guests will toss a whole wad of bills at them. It's optional for guests to participate, but bring a few dollar bills if you want to join in the festivities. The money symbolizes helping the couple get established.