So, you did it! You found the man of your dreams and now it is time to make arrangements for the ceremony of the century. The first big choice you have to make is where to have it. If you are a hybrid hyphenated bi-cultural American as most of us are, then you’re choosing between the US and Greece. Although the choice was not even an option for first generation Greek-Americans, for some of us in the third and fourth, having your wedding in Greece is not just magical and beautiful but makes a statement about our identity. As a result, having a Greek wedding, especially on one of the islands, has increased in popularity. Not to mention, a steady stream of non-Greeks have successfully had their weddings on the Greek islands ever since the Broadway revival of “Mama Mia.” In that show, the climax of the story happens as the mother gets married on the beach on the island of Hydra.
In this in-depth feature at greekamericangirl.com which will be published in a series of four parts, we explore the pros and cons, profile some brides who have had a Greek wedding, get advice on style, etiquette and doing it right from a well-known wedding planner from Santorini, and survey some of the sites and options for the ceremony across more than one island and some mainland venues.
PART ONE: PROS AND CONS
Deciding to have a wedding in Greece is a lot like planning for a destination wedding. The same advantages and disadvantages apply. For the pros—
The scenic beauty of Greece as a backdrop to your ceremony is unparalleled. Unless you are fortunate enough to live close to the coast in California, Hawaii, and certain parts of Florida, where in the US can you find the intense blue, the clarity of the sun, the mythical sunsets streaming in lavender, rose gold, and orange, while the turquoise waters tickle your feet on pebbly sands? The white-domed church stark against the bluest blue with a warm sea breeze pulling through your curls? The islands of Greece, as well as the mainland, remain an ideal setting for organizing a wedding. If you have any doubts about this, then look at the wedding photos of all the couples who have had their weddings in Greece as a reminder. This is a huge advantage because chances are your wedding and reception would be held in a stuffy hall or hotel in the US whereas in Greece it would be outdoors in a natural setting, and if you plan it for the summer, with the slimmest chance of rain. It is not unusual to have couples tie the knot under an olive tree or on the beach or overlooking the panorama of wide blue sea shimmering under the golden sun with dolphins doing somersaults in the distance.
For those who have many relatives living in Greece (chances are your clan members in Greece outnumber those who live in the US), arranging a wedding in Greece makes it convenient and acts as a bonding experience for those relatives who might be twice or thrice removed. Weddings in Greece are communal affairs. It is not uncommon to have the entire village crash the wedding if it is held on an island. In fact, a wedding is an excuse to have a party for all. This makes the event more festive. Additionally, traditional village weddings in Greece last for two to three days. There is no deadline or cut off times as the party lasts into the wee hours of the night. Compare this to the strict rules of a Westchester Country Club whose policy is that all functions cease at 11 am. Imagine the disappointment of one Greek American bride who tried to bribe the maître d to allow the party to go on at least until midnight to no avail. This is unheard of in Greece where most parties start after midnight.
Having your wedding in Greece makes a statement about your identity. It is a way to reconnect to your roots and symbolically tie the knot full circle in the place of your ancestry. If you have not made that connection to the land yet, doing so on this very momentous event in your life is significant. Of course, it depends on how you feel about your ancestry. If you are very Americanized, then having a wedding in Greece lacks the symbolic overtones. Even so, as a true American, Greece as a destination wedding would still top most people’s lists as unique.
Not counting the price for airline tickets for each member of the party, the cost of having a Greek wedding in Greece is considerably less than what one would pay for in the States (depending on how classy you wanted your reception). It is not unheard of for some weddings Stateside to average from $30-$100K. In Greece, you can get a beautiful hotel, flowers, photography, music services, food with service for about half that price depending on the luxury standard. All in all, when comparing weddings with the same star rating in the two places, having a wedding in Greece gets you more for your buck. (More on this in Part 3 where we preview different venues and comparison shop).
That’s not to say, that having a wedding in Greece is a piece of wedding cake. There are differences in culture, procedure, and paperwork.
THE PREPARATION and PLANNING
While it might be possible to arrange for a ceremony from start to finish in five month’s time Stateside, that would be a fiasco if you are planning a Greek destination wedding. The average time it takes to iron out the details, make bookings, and all the rest of the planning to-dos in a typical wedding is one year. Not for a wedding in Greece. Typically, to have a successful destination wedding, the couple should prepare two years in advance. Dimitra Tzortzatos, a Greek-American attorney who decided to have her wedding in Greece, stresses due diligence and careful preparation as key to a successful Greek wedding. According to her experience, she cited that planning a wedding in Greece is made more difficult because it is not as easy to find vendors in Greece as it is here in U.S. “You need to be in Greece at least 6 months prior to the date to book the church and venue,” she states. “ Then you have to find a reputable florist, band, DJ, photographer.” All this planning is made more time-consuming and involved because in a sense you are dealing with customs and protocols of a foreign country. (Even if you make frequent trips to Greece or spend your annual vacations there, Greece is not the same when you are trying to conduct business there.) She also points out that the Greek culture is not customer service oriented and most vendors will not go out of their way to accommodate you. As she states, “If you are planning a summer wedding, try to book vendors at least a year before as Greeks’ priority is their own vacation.” There was also the issue of trust and worrying about whether or not they would actually show up. Dimitra advises contracting the services of a wedding planner based in Greece to handle these planning details or at least hire one to manage the wedding day and keep the program moving smoothly without you, the anxiety-ridden bride already, having to become more anxious over the nerve-shattering details of why the DJ is not playing the proper theme music, or why the ice cream is runny, and why Theia Katina is not sitting next to her son causing her to get into a hysterical fit about the “prosboli” the insult to the family and the lack of “philotimo” for family.
Greece is a highly bureaucratic country. While arranging for paperwork is not a big deal as most wedding packages include processing fees for all licenses, the need to complete extra steps in the paperwork process is, nevertheless, another detail that needs attending. For the most part, it takes several weeks, if not months, before the required paperwork can be processed and a marriage certificate issued in Greece. If both bride and groom are Americans, the easier route would be to file for a marriage license in his/her own state(as long as the certificate does not state it is valid only in that state or county) and then have it stamped at the American embassy/consulate with an Apostille certification before the ceremony. Otherwise, there would be a lot of legwork in Greece for the license. Obtaining a marriage license in Greece generally involves submitting official identity documents (passport, birth certificate, any official documents attesting to the termination of a previous marriage) in duplicate for both bride and groom AND having OFFICIAL TRANSLATIONS done in Greek by a licensed lawyer, translator, or Consulate. Then, to show to the Greek authorities that there is no impediment in the marriage legally, two steps are required: 1) having an official Certificate of No Impediment in both English and Greek signed under oath by the American citizen bride or groom before a Consular Officer in Athens or Thessaloniki (or Embassy) and 2) having notices posted in the Greek newspapers about their intended union with copies of the newspaper.
And that’s just the first part, to apply for a marriage license. The second half of the process is to register the marriage once it is completed. Depending on whether it is a civil ceremony or a religious (with differing details depending on the religious jurisdiction), the presiding authority is charged with submitting the signed marriage certificates for filing in the National Registry office and the Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Because the process is long and laden with many paper trails, it is best to do research and contact your local Greek consulate if residing Stateside about the details of your particular ceremony. As general information, you can check with the American Embassy in Athens page http://athens.usembassy.gov/marriage.html.
THE TRAVEL EXPENSE
One of the biggest hurdles for organizing a wedding in Greece is making sure your closest relatives Stateside will be able to attend. For many of those near and dear to you, although they would love to attend your dream wedding in Mykonos, the logistics of arranging vacation time, the cost of round-trip air fare to Athens and then maybe a ferry to the island, aggravated by the stress of providing for kids make it close to impossible for them to attend. The reality is such that while your guest list might have numbered close to 200 in the US, those who will be able to accompany you on your dream wedding will be a tight handful. You will have to accept the fact that your island wedding will be a smaller, intimate affair, not like the sprawling rock concert of sorts some American weddings are. (I heard of one Greek-American restauranteur from Chicago had 6,000 invitees to his daughter’s wedding.)
One way to get over this hurdle, if you are intent on having your way, is to think of it as a pre-planned vacation with a function attached. If you inform your guests, two years in advance, you can reason with them, “Hey, we are getting married on the island of Mykonos during the summer of 2015. We would appreciate your presence. Keep your calendars open for that June.” You can present your wedding plans in the form of a vacation package for your guests, including brochures of the hotel or ceremony venue, prices for accommodation, and info of the destination. If you work early enough and have guests commit for a certain time in the future, you might be able to save money on air fare by getting a group discount with a travel agency or airline. Some airlines even offer discounts for individuals attending a ceremony such as a wedding.
CHANGES IN TRADITION and DIFFERENCES IN CUSTOMS
When you have a wedding in Greece, you might miss out on some of the American traditions you are used to. For one, it is not customary to have bridesmaids or groomsmen. Typically, the couple’s immediate family stand behind them on the altar with the sponsor(s). Unless you are having a civil wedding, having a Church wedding with a priest you are not familiar with feels a bit like a business transaction. As Dimitra Tzortzatos points out, “I also found that it’s hard to try and incorporate ‘American’ traditions and probably not a good idea because if most of the guests are native Greeks, they have a certain expectation of what will occur, and if you do something differently, they won’t know what to make of it. For example, in Greece they do not usually assign seats or tables to guests. We did, and the maître ‘d was guiding guests to their tables. However, some guests did not know to check with the maître ‘d and ended up sitting at tables reserved for close family ruffling feathers.” Sometimes you either have to educate guests and assimilate them into the traditions you want included in your ceremony or else follow the maxim, “When in Rome or Athens or Santorini, do as the Romans do.”
A difference in customs involves food. Dimitra recounts, “When I planned my wedding in 2005, it seemed that a three-course meal menu was not regarded as highly as having an open buffet with a lot of selection of food. There is no cocktail hour and then dinner–just one or the other.” Unless you are on the mainland where there are more options in terms of food selection, if you hold an intimate island wedding, you are limited to the types of food prepared in the hotel you have booked it. Not that that’s a bad thing. Traditional Greek food on the islands tends to be fresh, simple and delicious. But those who have special food needs, or a more discerning palate must become content with the local fare. Even so, some of the larger islands such as Crete allow for catering and more exotic food choices (Thai, French, German, even American continental!)
But there are some local customs that might be nice to include on your big day, especially if you like the more traditional sort. For one, it is customary in Greece to place sweets under the guests’ pillows. In some places, single girls sleep with a slice of wedding cake under their pillows in order to dream of their future husbands. And there is the village ritual of having the bride ride on a donkey accompanied by serenading violin musicians (usually wearing a Greek captain hat and a bushy moustache) all the way to the church. You pick and choose which customs you want and include them in the day ‘s festivities. It’s also a good idea to include a short explanation of each custom you choose to use for guests who would otherwise think, “It’s all Greek to me.”
So, where do you have it—Stateside or Greece? Ultimately, each couple must decide for themselves based on their unique needs, preferences, and circumstances. All told, most of the brides surveyed would opt to have their weddings in Greece. Having a wedding in Greece is a dream come true for both Greek-Americans and non-Greeks alike. Realizing the dream takes a bit of creative problem-solving, flexibility, and plenty plenty of prep time.
Log back in a few days for PART 2 of this feature: My Dream Wedding Come True