Greek Orthodox Weddings in Pontos
by Sam Topalidis 2015
There is a lack of written culture in English about Pontos (northeastern region of Turkey adjacent the Black Sea), especially on christian Greek weddings. This work attempts to address this issue with the collated descriptions of Greek weddings from Hortokop, Kromni and Kars in Pontos.
The christian Greek refugees from Pontos brought a rich cultural heritage with them, including their wedding traditions, when in the early 20th century they were forced to leave their homeland and settle in Greece.
In Pontos, matchmakers played an important role in Greek Orthodox weddings and sometimes the bride-to-be was not even consulted. The bride’s parents made the decision when approached by the groom’s parents or their matchmakers (see Note 1). In many instances couples married at a very young age (S. Papadopoulos 1983).
In Pontos, a newly married woman was obliged to live in the house of her father-in-law and become a member of the household and perform defined chores. She had to maintain silence towards her in-laws, until she was given permission to speak, which ‘may’ be given after she gave birth to children. Only when a family did not have a son, the husband of the daughter lived with his in-laws and took the surname of his wife (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World).
The three christian Greek weddings described, which are at times incomplete, show that within Pontic Greek culture there was local variety in the ways common elements were included in the celebrations.
2. Hortokop weddings
The following wedding preparations in Hortokop near Maçka (pronounced Machka), 25 km south of Trabzon (Figure 1), are sourced from A. Papadopoulos (1954), translated from Greek into English in S. Papadopoulos (1983). (See Note 2.) The preparations began immediately after the parents agreed to the wedding.
Wedding celebrations began on Thursday with the invitations. The relatives were invited by being offered a piece of pie. The remaining guests were invited by being offered a simple red candle. Those going to the wedding as maids or ushers were offered both of the above. On Thursday evening, baking for the wedding also occurred. Bread called trigonia was baked for the groom and a special pie was baked for the bride.
On Friday, the main meals for the wedding were prepared. The main course usually consisted of meat with potatoes (in winter) or meat with string beans (if they were in season) and many other combinations.
On Saturday morning, the families of the bride and groom entertained their respective relatives who would arrive and usually stay till midnight. On Saturday night, celebrations began in both homes. The relatives and guests presented their gifts to the bride on Saturday night and to the groom on Sunday morning.
Sunday morning the bridal maids dressed the bride for her wedding at home. The parents provided the clothes to be worn by the bride and groom. The bride’s wedding clothes included white woollen stockings, a blouse, kepsin (worn under the zipouna), koutnin spaler (silk and cotton-like material worn around the chest under the zipouna), the zipouna, a cotton or woollen dress from neck to ankle in length with slits at the side of the legs, a blue apron [and a short open overcoat worn over the zipouna] and two kerchiefs, one worn on top of the other.
On her forehead she wore perpentoulia made up of beads and imitation gold currency hung from a red ribbon and tied to the back of the head. The bridal maids dressed similar to the bride, except for the veil (Figure 2). When the bride was dressed, her mother would enter and wish her future prosperity. The bride’s father would follow and then the remaining relatives. When it was time for the groom to enter, the bridal maids placed a white veil over the bride’s face.
Early Sunday morning the best man would be picked up at his house by the groom and his friends, with Pontic lyra music (see Note 3) and a large lighted candle. Returning to the groom’s house with the best man and guests, dancing began with daouli (drum), and zourna (type of clarinet) while the combing and shaving of the groom occurred.
After this, parents, relatives and friends offer gifts to the groom. A table of food was then available so those present could eat. Then the retrieval of the bride occurred. The father of the groom was the first out of the house (with his right foot first), followed by the groom, the priest, the best man and others. They rode to the bride’s home on horseback, taking a horse for the bride.
When they reached the bride’s parent’s house, the groom and the best man would go to the house. The groom would take out a sharp double-edged knife and after making the sign of the cross, stick the knife in the top of the door. His future mother-in-law would come out and present him gifts. After they entered, the groom would then present his gifts to his bride.
The priest and some relatives would enter and the wedding ceremony would be performed. [There was little detail provided on the ceremony with, for example, the ‘dance of Isaiah’ around a table.] When the priest shouted, ‘Isaiah horeve’, a song which is part of the Greek Orthodox ceremonies, men would slap the groom. Wheat was thrown at the newly-weds and the priest would offer them wine. Whatever wine was left was offered to the youth, especially young ladies, for luck.
After this, the wedding party returned to the groom’s parent’s house. The bride rode the horse which was brought for her. Along the way, the best man would take the pie that was made for the bride and throw cut pieces to the following crowd. They would retrieve the pieces and give them to others for luck.
When they arrived, the bride would be helped off the horse and a big copper pot was brought in order to touch her feet for good luck. She would then enter the house with her right foot first. After she was greeted, dancing followed for a considerable time.
It was expected that the bride would not talk to her in-laws but communicate with them through signs or gestures. This silence was called Strimnoman and was well known throughout Pontos. Bouteneff (2007) states a young Pontic Greek wife who moved in with her Pontic Greek husband’s family upon marriage would be expected to keep silent until she had produced a son.
In Pontic Greek weddings in Kromni, Andreadis (2007) called this silence Mas. In Kromni, the bride maintained this silence for one or two years and in some cases for life. Mas only ended when her in-laws gave her permission to talk in their presence. This process of the new bride keeping silent in the presence of her in-laws was an effective way of reducing arguments in a household where many people lived.
- Kromni weddings
Andreadis (2007) passionately describes the courtship and wedding of the Greek crypto-christians (see Note 3) around Kromni, the mining township 70 km south of Trabzon (Figure 1). These wedding ceremonies did not occur in churches, as they were crypto-christians. Andreadis (2007) sourced this information from Papanikolas, the Pontic Greek priest in Kalamaria near Thessaloniki in northern Greece. Papanikolas was born in 1888 in Kromni and in 1913 became a vicar in Kromni. Papanikolas told Andreadis the following information during the decade prior to the priest’s death in 1959.
Greek christian and muslim weddings in Kromni often occurred with girls aged between 12 and 14 years of age. Single girls aged 16 years would possibly become spinsters and single girls older than 20 years would not receive further offers of betrothal. The boys also married young, although most were older than their brides (see Note 4).
The crypto-christians avoided match-making their girls with male muslim Turks as the girls would become muslims. However, they accepted a muslim bride as she could be isolated from her groom’s family and prevented from sharing her husband’s bed until she became a christian. In Kromni, a bride did not visit her parents until after a year of marriage.
As was usual in the Orthodox Greek tradition, there were no weddings during the four great fasts; the six weeks of Great Lent, the fast of the Holy Apostles which ended on 29 June, Domition from 1 to 15 August and the Christmas fast from 14 November to 25 December. Local Kromni tradition also prevented weddings occurring during May or in leap years. Kromni crypto-christian weddings proceeded with the following steps.
The parents looked for the right bride from the right family for their son.
The proposal (psalapheman)
After the prospective bride was chosen, the boy’s parents entrusted women match-makers to propose to the girl’s family on their behalf. If the girl’s parents were not interested, the case was abandoned unless the boy’s parents strongly wanted that girl for their son. If the girl’s parents were in favour of the match, then negotiations for the girl’s dowry would proceed. The dowry was usually money, land or household gifts given to the groom’s family by the bride’s family as the bride would be living with her in-laws. (According to the Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, in Pontos, clothes were a considerable part of the dowry when the dowry did not include any real property.) In contrast, for muslim Turks, dowries were ‘paid’ by the groom’s family to the bride’s father.
The engagement (soumademan)
The engagement followed after the girl’s parents accepted the proposal. The engagement ceremony occurred at night in the girl’s parent’s house where the young man, the parents of the couple, perhaps a few relatives and the priest were present. The priest took the rings, and said three times, ‘in the name of God and with the blessing of the parents, we have come to engage (the groom’s name) with (the bride’s name), what do you say?’ The groom responded, ‘let it happen with the blessing of God and by the wish of the parents’. The bride, who waited in another room, was then asked by the priest for her response which was, ‘as my parents wish’. The priest then blessed her and rejoining the groom’s family gave them the bride. [The bride wore a veil.] The wrapped wedding rings were given to the priest and he completed the engagement service. (The engagement was performed separately from the wedding service.) During the period of the engagement, the groom rarely visited his bride and when he did he was accompanied by his family.
The wedding (stephanoma or the crowning)
Weddings always took place on a Sunday with their preparations taking many days. The groom underwent a ceremonial shaving, and in his yard they decorated a goat which would escort his friends and relatives to the ceremony. The bridal bath took place on Saturday. For the wedding, the bride would be dressed in her wedding finery, which included the pink zipouna (dress) and a close-fitting jacket.
The placement of crowns (in the shape of a bishop’s mitre) on the heads of the bride and groom was performed by the priest together with the best man [expected to be in the bride’s parent’s house]. The crypto-christian priest offered milk with honey (not wine) in a cup to the couple and the best man. Then the priest broke the cup underfoot. During the ‘dance of Isaiah’, the priest followed by the best man, the groom, the bride and the bridesmaid (if there was one) all held hands as they circled the wedding table. While this was happening, the guests scattered korkota (a mixture of candy, raisins, nuts and small coins) over the newly-weds. At each corner of the table they stopped and the newly-weds kissed the corresponding side of the Gospel, which was on the table.
When the ceremony ended, the priest wrapped the crowns and then he finally took off the bride’s veil. For some in the groom’s family this was the first time they saw the bride’s face. Amazingly, in some cases it was the same for the groom!
Then followed the charisma (the giving) where the relatives of the groom gave presents to the bride. Then the musicians started playing in the wedding feast while the couple danced Omal. This was followed by the thymisma (the remembering), in which the dancers held lit candles, bound together on a single wreath and accompanied by the musicians, danced in slow rhythmic steps to a song of benediction.
- Wedding from Kars
The following description of the final preparations and the day of the wedding is based on the August 1986 fieldwork recorded in Zografou (1993) on Pontic Greek weddings, including the role of dance, in the village of Palio Agioneri. This is a Pontic Greek village, 20 km from Thessaloniki, in the north of Greece. The villagers were Pontic Greek refugees from the village of Moula Moustafa in the Kars region in eastern Anatolia (280 km east of Trabzon, see Figure 1).
This description serves to highlight the parallel but different ceremonies the bride and groom separately experienced before coming together.
Before the ceremony
- a) The best man’s invitation and the feast of the groom and the best man
On Saturday evening, friends and relatives of the groom tie a red ribbon around the neck and the legs of a rooster and accompanied by musicians they proceed to the best man’s house. On their way they drink raki (tsipro) and dance the Tas. The man who holds the rooster and a woman lead the procession dancing with the rooster accompanied by music from the clarinet and the accordion. The Pontic lyra was not used as it was not loud enough. (In Kars, the musicians played the zourna or tulum (bagpipe) and daouli (drum). See Note 3.)
When they arrive at the best man’s house, they hand him the rooster after they receive an amount of money. Then the best man and the invited people, together with the wedding procession dance back to the groom’s house, where the feast takes place till sunrise with music and dancing. (It now usually takes place in a rented local tavern.) The musical instruments included Pontic lyra, clarinet, drums and harmonium.
- b) The bride’s feast and the gifts to the bride
On Saturday night, the feast at the bride’s parent’s house took place. After the feast at the bride’s and the groom’s houses had commenced the bride’s mother-in-law and the relatives who were present at the betrothal, give presents to the bride. (In Greece, the feast takes place in a tavern.) When the mother-in-law arrives, she dances the Omal Kars led by the bride. Today, gifts to the bride are usually money, but in Pontos they gave household goods. When all the gifts had been received, the mother-in-law and her relatives return to the groom’s feast.
Before midnight, young boys and girls (friends of the groom) take the wedding-gown to the bride’s feast. Here they form a circle and the leader holds the wedding-gown dancing Omal Kars and Tik Diplon until the money offered satisfies the group. Then the group returns to the groom’s feast. The groom was not allowed to see the bride.
- c) The embellishment of the bride
At noon on Sunday, in the yard of the bride’s parent’s house, the musicians play Pontic tunes, using loud speakers. The bride’s relatives and her guests, dance in the yard, while the closest relatives prepare a roasted rooster and the foustoro (omelette). Inside the house, the bride’s friends dress her, keeping the doors and the windows shut.
- d) The shaving and the dressing of the groom
On Sunday morning the shaving and the dressing of the groom takes place at his home assisted by his relatives and friends while musicians play Pontic tunes. Once the groom is ready, a procession is formed lead by the musicians as they dance the Tas to the bride’s parent’s house.
- e) The nyfeparman
When they approach the house, the musicians play very loud in order to outdo the bride’s band. While the feast proceeds in the yard of the house, the groom, his mother and the best man bring out the bride from the house. But first, the best man pays a silver coin to the bride’s relatives who block the door. When the door opens they offer the best man a piece of the roasted rooster and the groom the omelette. The bride, surrounded by her friends and close relatives, stands in the middle of the room. The groom must now find the bride’s hidden shoe which is accomplished by paying for its return. Then the groom kisses the bride, while the mother-in-law ‘breaks’ the cake on the bride’s head, handing out pieces of the cake to the bride’s friends. Then they all walk out of the house.
As the groom and bride exit, the musicians play the achpaston, the sad tune of separation. The bride and groom, the best man and the bride’s mother-in-law dance Omal Kars, which turns around three times in front of the house. When all the relatives have danced with the bride, they proceed to the church.
The church ceremony
A procession is formed, led by the relatives and the musicians of the groom followed by the bride’s group as they dance the Tas heading towards the church. Some of the participants have bottles of raki (tsipro). The bride’s group deliberately delays the procession, as a sign of the bride’s love for her parents. In the church the wedding takes place, with the traditional Isaiah dance. After the crowning, all greet the newly-wed couple and then leave the church.
After the ceremony
- Return of the wedding procession
After the ceremony, the procession dances the Tas to the groom’s house. The parents and close relatives of the bride do not take part in this procession.
- The unveiling of the bride (apokamaroman)
At the groom’s house, the bride’s mother-in-law welcomes the couple and lifts the bride’s veil to uncover her face (the apokamaroman). Then she offers a spoonful of red jam to the couple and to the best man. The mother-in-law, the newly-weds and the best man dance Omal Kars three times round in front of the door of the house. Then they enter the house where a table is covered with food.
- The feast of the newly-weds
In Greece, the feast began with music and dancing at the village tavern for the wedding guests. The gifts to the groom begin before midnight. Gifts are also offered to the best man.
- The thymisman
The thymisman is a slow ritual circle dance which takes place before midnight, where seven married couples (who have been married only once) and the best man participate. The best man leads the circle with the groom’s parents, the newly-weds and all the others follow. The dancers turns around three times to the sound of the Pontic lyra.
After the thymisman the wedding is complete. In Greece, many of the participants might continue feasting till the next day, whereas in the past the Kotsagel dance took place in the streets in the morning after the wedding.
It is hoped the collation of these Greek weddings from Pontos in English will help disseminate this information to those who cannot read Greek. Such rich Pontic Greek culture should not be forgotten.
The wedding culture of christian Greeks from Pontos is dissipating as Pontic Greeks become more ‘homogenised’ in Greece or as they become assimilated in their new countries, such as the USA, Germany, Canada or Australia.
Note 1: S. Papadopoulos (1983) interviewed 28 married Pontic Greeks who were born in Pontos. Seven were married in Pontos of whom two briefly mentioned their wedding, but the remaining five people deliberately avoided any such discussion. This may indicate their weddings were not joyous occasions.
Note 2: This wedding ceremony occurred at home even though churches were available.
Note 3: The following links are to my articles on the excellent Turkish Pontic website, www.karalahana.com:
- on the Pontic lyra (kemenche): www.karalahana.com/2015/10/23/the-kemence/
- on the daouli (drum) and the tulum (bagpipe): www.karalahana.com/category/english/music/page/2/
- on the crypto-christians around Trabzon: www.karalahana.com/2015/10/23/crypto-christians-of-the-trabzon-region-of-pontos/
Note 4: As an example, my maternal Pontic Greek grandmother was 15 years old when she married her 16 year old husband in 1897 in a village on the southern outskirts of Trabzon. My maternal grandmother’s Pontic Greek parents were 14 years old when they married around 1860 in the same area.
I wish to warmly thank Mr Michael Bennett for his comments on the draft work.
Andreadis, G 2007, ‘Faith unseen: the crypto-christians of Pontus, part 1’, Road to Emmaus, vol. viii, no. 4, pp. 2–53.
Bouteneff, PF 2007, ‘Persecution and perfidy: women’s and men’s worldviews in Pontic Greek folktales’, in Women in the Ottoman Balkans: gender, culture and history (Eds A. Buturovic & I. Schick) Library of Ottoman Studies 15, Tauris and Co Ltd, London.
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, vol. 1, Asia Minor, ‘Folk costumes in the Pontos’, viewed at: www.ehw.gr/ehw/forms/Default.aspx on 31 October 2015.
Hionides, C 1996, The Greek Pontians of the Black Sea, Boston, USA.
Nişanyan, S & Nişanyan, M 2001, Black Sea: a traveller’s handbook for northern Turkey, 3rd edn, Infognomon, Athens.
Papadopoulos, A 1954, ‘Gamilia ethima is to Hortokopi tis Matzoukas’ (in Greek), [Wedding customs in Hortokop of Matzouka], Archeion Pontou [Archives of Pontos], vol. 19, pp. 242–8.
Papadopoulos, S 1983, Events and cultural characteristics regarding the Pontian-Greeks and their descendants, PhD thesis, School of Education, Health, Nursing and Arts Professions, New York University, New York.
Zografou, M 1993, ‘The role of dance in the progression of a Pontic wedding’, Dance Studies, vol. 17, pp. 49–75, Centre for Dance Studies, Jersey.