Back in the late 1970s – early 1980s, in many villages across Cyprus, weddings were still carried out as extremely traditional affairs. True, most of the village weddings were held during a single day, but I remember in 1980 being part of a wedding in Kouklia Village (Paphos District) which extended over three days! I don’t know if that was a one-off thing, or whether different parts of Cyprus retained more traditions than others, but most of the weddings I observed or directly participated in took place in Kalavasos Village in the western Larnaca District. These were all single-day events.
I remember how grand these weddings were and I especially recall the genuine hospitality, generosity and openness displayed both by the families directly involved and by the village community at large. Whether you attend the church service or not, everybody in the village is invited to the huge dinner party (“wedding piss up”) often held in an appropriate public area within the village, frequently right in the centre of the plateia (village square). There would be many traditions observed throughout the day and into the evening, traditional foods served, lots of drinks, and almost always live music and dancing. Everything was paid for by the families of the bride and groom (one or the other or both). Of course, each attending person/couple/family would present a gift (usually cash) to the couple, so the more people who you invited, the more attendees, the more (cash) gifts. I’ve been to some weddings where there were over 2000 guests! Do the math…
A Traditional Wedding in Kalavasos
In Kalavasos virtually everybody in the village attended the wedding: If you were in the village you had a de facto invitation. There was a strict traditional structure observed. Each Groom (Gambros) would have a string of Koumbarous (no precise translation but very good friends and family members who represented multiple “Best Men”). One of them, usually the very best friend of the groom or the brother he was closest to, would act as Protos Koumbaros, which is more akin to the normal Best Man in western weddings. The situation for the Bride (Nymphi) was exactly analogous, except the string of special friends or “Bride’s Maids” would be called Koumeres and there was one Proti Koumera.
On the day of the wedding (usually on a Saturday) various traditional acts would take place. First, the Koumbaroi/Koumeres would gather at the house of the Gambros/Nymphi together with the respective family members. The Gambros would be freshly shaved (by either the village barber or even by the Proto Kombaro) and dressed in the wedding dress clothes. The Nymphi would similarly undergo an intensive make-up and beautification session and be attended to by her constituent Koumeres. In both cases, there would traditional wedding music played, sometimes live by the village Violaris (“violin player”).
In the early 1980s, I had a chance to observe and photograph some of this outside the house of my good friend Stavros (Elia) the Butcher inside Kalavasos. It was the wedding of Stavros’ daughter Andri. Everybody would gather in front of the house and when the time came a traditional wedding procession would take place through the village streets towards the church.
After the church service was concluded, everybody descended to the village centre or Plateia and the party started. I was able to observe one of the great wedding traditions of Cyprus that has now virtually disappeared. Family members came into the village square with a large brand new mattress. They draped bed sheets over the mattress and then hoisted it up to their shoulders and engaged in a traditional dance holding the mattress above them. After a couple of minutes, they laid the mattress on the ground and then a line of relatives and friends formed and they then proceeded to toss cash notes (5-ers, 10-ers, we’re talking Cyprus Lires, friends!) onto the sheets. After 30 minutes there was so much cash attached to the mattress, they had to collect it all so more money could be added.
Suddenly the band would start to play and then the newly wedded couple would appear and engage in a slow, flowing dance. Again friends and family members would approach the couple and pin cash money onto the clothes of the dancing bride and groom. I stood there mesmerised as I observed this and, foolish me, I forgot to take photos! Eventually, everybody took their place at the many folded tables that were set up in long lines across the village square. Traditional village wedding food was served. Because the father of the bride was the village butcher, there was lots and lots of meat. Huge trays of ophton klephtiko came out: large chunks of goat, mutton and beef, wrapped in aluminum foil and slow cooked for hours in a traditional oven. There was one guy standing by a giant metal cauldron spooning out huge portions of some wheat-based porridge concoction called Resi. Platters of makaronia tou phournou (aka pasticcio), koupepia (aka dolmades or stuffed vine leaves), kephtedes (“meatballs”), roast potatoes and lots of salad filled out the tables. All of this was washed down with a variety of beverages: soft drinks, large bottles of KEO/Carlsberg, wine, ouzo and, most popular with the Kalavasos male population, koniaki (Cyprus brandy), either LOEL 43, Hadjipavlou Anglias or my personal favourite, KEO VSOP!
One of the multi-talented young men in the village was a guy named Andreas Mikhail, who was one of several sons fathered by the great “Tsiakataris” or who we called “Big Kyriakos” (see related article “Big Kyriakos, The Gypsum Man”). Andreas –everybody called him “Andros”– had a day job in the special police force guarding a government-owned beach side villa at nearby Governors Beach. This was originally built for recreational use by the string of former British Governors of Cyprus, hence the place name “Governors Beach.” However, since 1960, when Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule (thus there was no longer a Governor to use the villa), this beach facility became available for use by the President of the Republic of Cyprus. Everybody called it “The President’s House.” Well, this guy Andros in his spare time would play the Bouzouki. I think during the 1980s I must have attended ten weddings in Kalavasos and at each one Andros would play the Bouzouki with various others forming a back-up band. In those days, weddings were a very close-knit affair.
This all stands in strong contrast to the watered down, tradition-impoverished weddings of modern times in Cyprus, which are typically held in a large generic facility like a boring reception area or ballroom inside a 4 or 5 star hotel. You show up, stand in queue behind lots of people you may or may not even know, give your envelope (with a cash gift for the newly wedded couple), shake their hands, get a pre-wrapped sweet generic wedding biscuit and drink a glass or two of local sparkling wine. That’s usually the whole affair: in and out within 20 minutes. Sometimes I feel weddings like these modern ones are conducted with all the gusto of a McDonalds Drive-Thru!