15th and 16th Sep 2007
It was an extremely lucky coincidence that we managed to be in Cyprus for one of Niki's school friend's wedding. Andri and Niki have been friends since Primary school, and have kept in contact ever since. Last time we were in Cyprus (Jan 2005), Andri told Niki she was seeing a guy by the name of Marios, but we were not fortunate enough to meet him then. This visit we were invited to their wedding. We arrived at the church (one of the large churches in the suburbs of Nicosia), moments before the bridal party arrived with horns blaring to announce their arrival. This was to be my first experience of a Greek Orthodox wedding, so I was curious to note the similarities and differences between protestant weddings and the Greek Orthodox tradition. As fair as the bride and groom's clothing were, there were no real surprises, Andri wore a really nice white number with a veil, and Marios wore a black suit. There was a best man, but no other groomsmen, and also, a maid of honor but no other bridesmaids. There were however no shortage of flower girls and page boys.
The differences start with the ceremony. The entire wedding ceremony is a sung liturgy in high Greek which goes for about 30 minutes with various different symbolic gestures such as large rings tied together with ribbon placed over the bride and grooms heads symbolising their union, and a couple of laps around the alter being their first steps as husband and wife. Also lots of kissing of an ornate bible by the bride, groom, best man, maid of honor and the priest (you've really got to hope that none of them have any kind of communicable disease). One notable thing missing from all this (from my perception of what a wedding should be) was the exchange of vows. After the ceremony was over, there was a cocktail party style reception in the courtyard of the church where the bride and groom, and both sets of parents stood as guests filed past congratulating them. Later there was a private reception for close friends and family at a very nice restaurant in the city. This apparently is where Andri and Marios departed from the standard traditional style of reception. To explain further I will move on to a more traditional style wedding which was the one we went to the following evening.
This was the wedding of.... well actually I don't know either the bride or the grooms names, and no one seemed terribly interested in telling me their names, all I know to this day is that the bride is the daughter of Niki's father's first cousin. The first thing to note was that we didn't actually bother going to the ceremony at the church for this one. This struck me as quite odd, because in Australia where wedding receptions are extremely costly, it is common to invite everyone along to see the actual church service, but restrict access to the reception to only close friends and immediate family, (and if you're really rich, or have very forceful parents, maybe certain members of the extended family). In Cyprus the ceremony is attended only by those closest to the bride and groom, and the reception is actually a net money making exercise. The tradition is based on the idea that the best way in which to help start a newly wed couples married life is to give them money. In the past people would pin money to the bride and groom's wedding outfits, these days, there is a small white envelope containing some money, and a small card saying who the gift came from, handed to either the bride or the groom as you file past. So of course the more people you can invite to your reception, the more money you can make.
This wedding was held out in one of the villages, at a massive restaurant about 30 minutes drive from Niki's parents' place. The invitation said that it started at 8:00pm, we turned up just before 8:30pm, but nobody seemed particularly fussed about being late, and when we got there we joined a fairly large queue of people who were waiting to file past the bride and groom, and wish them all the best and slip them their white envelope. I felt quite uneasy, just waiting for someone to come up to me and ask "how do you know the bride and groom?", and tried to stick close to Niki for some sense of "context", who herself didn't really feel like she had much "context", but wasn't as worried about it as I was. She eventually just said to me, "just pretend you're going out to a restaurant for dinner".
While we were waiting, I suddenly realised that I didn't know what I should say to the bride and groom, and to their respective parents (my Greek isn't that good, barely beyond non-existent), so seconds before we got to the wedding party, I asked Niki what I should say, she told me 2 separate phrases to use, one for the bride and groom, the other for their parents. I hurriedly practiced these two phrases, but by the time I got to them, it was all mashed on my mind due to nerves, so for the bride and groom, I mouthed something that might have resembled what they were expecting to hear, but was in all honesty nothing like what I was supposed to say, By the time I got to the parents (and grand parents), I had resorted to a nod of the head, and in some cases just saying "congratulations" in English. It worked for 2 reasons, firstly the fact that there was a lot of noise around me (Cypriots are a very loud bunch), and secondly because the wedding party had already done this hundreds of times already that day, and were already in automatic mode and they weren't really paying much attention to detail.
Standing in the queue I was starting to feel a bit overwhelmed by just how many people there were, more people had turned up after us, and the queue was growing with every passing minute, but nothing had prepared me for what was to follow. As we finally got through our congratulating of the wedding party, and then joined the queue for the buffet style meal, we were finally able to see the vastness of the restaurant and just how many people were at the reception. The restaurant was an open hall with 2 serveries running taking up a small amount of space on the left hand side of the ground floor, a bar at the front, and then row after row of tables, each seating 14 people. I think there would easily have been around 30 of these tables on the ground floor, and probably another 15 or so on the second floor. As we were queuing for the food, the hall looked just over half full, and people were still streaming past the wedding party, and joining the queue for food.
We served ourselves some food and sat down at one of the tables. The food was traditional Greek/Cypriot food, olives, taramousalata, Kleftiko, Greek salad, Haloumi Cheese etc..., and it was of a fairly good quality. We ate and watched as the people kept streaming past the wedding party. About half way through the meal, the hall would have been around 70% full, kids were running everywhere, the band was playing way too loud, and I had finally realised that my search for context was irrelevant. I estimate there were just under a thousand people people at the wedding, at the most the bride and groom would have known maybe 200 of them. Niki also explained to me that the other reason for the size of the reception is that a wedding in Cyprus is also an opportunity for the parents to brag, and show off their great parenting skills by having raised a child to the point where they have found a life partner and tied the knot, so the invitation list is more about who the parents know rather than who the people getting married know. Also, Village weddings tend to invite the entire village, including the priest that performed the ceremony.
After we finished dinner we sat around for a while taking in the ambiance and complaining about the band being too loud, even though they'd gone from the rock music they started with to more traditional Greek music with only the introduction of the Bouzouki as the necessary instrumentation change. Many people had already left by this stage, the duties of congratulating people, handing over white envelopes, and consuming food having been sufficiently performed. After a while we also decided to leave, and as we were leaving i was amazed to see people still filing in past the wedding party. I did see the flow of people ease up from time to time, and the bride and groom were able to steal a couple of moments to sit down and talk, but the stream had been fairly constant since we'd arrived. When we got to the car park (around 10:30pm), there were still people arriving.
I have to admit I enjoyed Andri and Marios wedding a lot more, but the sheer sense of awe at the size of the second wedding has caused me to spend the greater part of this blog article on it. Another difference I noticed between both the Cypriot receptions and your standard anlgo wedding was the absence of speeches(speeches are not really part of the culture)