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Survival Guide for Big Fat (Expensive) Cretan Weddings

Amid the Greek crisis, the salary cuts and the tax invasion, you would think that weddings in Greece would also be affected. And they are. But not in Crete.

A month ago, my best friend got married in my home town, Chania. It was a posh wedding in one of the most expensive resorts of the area –pretty much similar to Athenian weddings in Island Club in Varkiza or the Nasiutzik Museum. A week after that, I went to the real thing: a wedding in Anogia, a village  lying on the north slopes of Psiloritis mountain, Milopotamos County, Rethimno region.
Weddings are big business in Cretan villages. Despite all the changes in the cultural celebrations of marriage, tradition continues to reign supreme on Cretan mountains.  It’s one of the few industries remaining thriving with a multimillion euro annual  turnover.
Anyone who has the opportunity to attend a traditional Cretan wedding is in for a treat. With deep ceremonial traditions and a flare for lively receptions, a traditional Cretan wedding is an event not to be missed. If you happen to be at a Cretan village after the fifteenth of August, you will most likely bump into one, as the Greek church prohibits weddings from the first of August to the fifteenth-the day of the Assumption-resulting to a jam-packed wedding calendar for the second half of August and throughout September (Cretans marry a lot).
But before you head off to a joyous union at a Cretan village, why not take a moment to discover the know-how and the logistics behind Cretan marriage celebrations as a well as couple of survival tips (you’ll need them).
The Pre-wedding Party (Progamos)
The night before the wedding, the couple holds a party, where guests drink (a lot), eat (a lot) and throw money on the bridal bed-nothing less than 100 euros, that is. There is live music, dancing, cheering and lots of jokes for the prospective couple.
The Anti-wedding (Antigamos)
On the day of the wedding, the groom’s friends get on their horses and race in order to get to the bride’s house and announce that their friend  is waiting at the church and will indeed keep his promise and marry his bride (not that he would have a choice). The first one to make it to the bride’s house is rewarded with a traditional-yummy-Cretan “kouloura”. Then the bride hops on the winner’s horse and he takes her to the church. The rest of the groom’s friends and relatives follow, playing the lyra, singing wedding songs and eeeh- shooting.
The Actual Wedding
The guest list for wedding festivities usually reads like a who’s who of the village, the neighboring villages, as well as all four municipalities of Crete. A four digit number of guests is considered pretty standard. The number of guests at the wedding I attended was well over three thousand. The setting included long tables at the village’s central square, a live band playing Cretan music, wine, raki and lots, lots of Anogian delicious meat. The whole village was basically blocked with either tables or cars parked all over the place.
The “Fakelaki” Factor
You would think that with three thousand guests the newlyweds would go bankrupt. And had they gotten married in any place other than Crete, they would. But in Cretan villages, “γαμoπίλαφο” (Cretan traditional wedding risotto) doesn’t come cheap. Traditional wedding gifts – the faithful toaster, pots and pans, and dishes – just don’t cut it in Crete. Cash is the key word. The bare minimum for someone to attend a wedding in Anogia is around one hundred euros. If you happen to be close to the couple you would have to stick a month’s salary in the tiny white «φακελάκι», a small white envelope with your name on it. With three thousand guests and an average of 150 euros each, that’s real money-enough for a new car (or two), a couple of years rent, even a nice chunk of the couple’s future down payment. Hilarious stories about people stuffing tissues instead of money and “forgetting” to write their names on them are a common joke amongst Cretans.
On Their Feet
After the ceremony, the bride and groom, as well as their families,  have to stand on their feet in order to greet ALL the guests one by one. After the guests wish a joyful life to the happy couple, they put their “fakelaki” in a big plastic bag. Α family member (usually a brother or a sister) is in charge to collect and guard the bag -with their lives if necessary.
The Bridal Dance
Once the bride arrives at the central village square, the “glenti” starts rolling. Custom dictates that the bride will dance for much of the evening and guests take turns to dance with her. In case you want to dance with the bride, bear in mind that it also comes with a price. As you get on the floor to show your Cretan dancing skills you need to hand a fifty- euro note to the lirari!
The Center of Attention (No, it’s not the bride.)
In traditional Cretan weddings, the center of attention is not just the bride. In fact, in many cases the “lirari” ends up stealing the bride’s thunder. Depending on how big of a star the lirari is, he could make four to ten thousand euros a wedding (tax-free). Each lirari has his personal motto to stir up the crowds. For instance, a famous lirari from Rethimno, whilst playing,  shouts “Eπανάσταση! Ναι, μωρέ!” (Come on, let’s have a revolution!). Suddenly, tens of guns appear and the Cretans start shooting like crazy (so much for the law enforcement against meaningless shooting).
The Food
Oh, the food! Cretans know how to eat and when it comes to weddings, they exaggerate themselves. Cretan receptions are lavish, full of energy, and place a tremendous emphasis on food and drink. Days before the wedding, the men of the village have -yet another – party and take care of the meat. After they finish with this barbaric procedure, the women of the village start cooking and cooking and cooking. Gamopilafo and kalitsounia (little cheese pies) can’t be absent from any Cretan wedding that respects itself and they are both delicious. Other wedding treats include roast meat, boiled meat,”ofto meat” (cooked in earthen utensil with fried unpeeled potatoes), and traditional meat pie (Yes, Cretans love meat).
Μπαλοθιές (Cretan word for meaningless gun shooting )
Ηandguns are virtually banned for private citizens unless you are a member of a shooting sportsman’s club or-apparently- if you come from Crete and have a wedding to attend. To be fair, weddings in towns are fairly civilized, but when it comes to villages, to a foreigner, a Cretan wedding seems like war with music and dancing. The lirari usually gives the signal. Best case scenario is you are going deaf for a couple of days. Stay calm if you happen to see a cartridge landing on your plate. Hide under the table if necessary. Even if you complain, the answer you will most likely get is that they are “careful” along with a  brief history of the Cretan revolution against the Turks, the Arabs, the Venetians,  the Germans, mixed with Kazantzaki’s “Freedom and Death” masterpiece and a tint of  irrelevant information about Crete’s social geography. Give it up. Don’t attempt to convince them otherwise. It’s a lost cause.
Οι Ξένοι (The Foreigners)
Cretan weddings might come expensive for locals, but for tourists they come for free. Anyone passing by the village is welcome to attend the wedding. To be precise, if you happen to be in a village where there’s a wedding, the locals will not let you leave if they don’t feed you and make you drink “koupes” until you drop.  Getting “ξένους” drunk is a rather popular Cretan hobby.  Chances are they will  provide a bed for you since you won’t be able to walk-let alone drive- those bumpy Cretan country roads.

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