By Gavin Jones
Stored away in suitcases, boxes or on dusty shelves, many of us have a collection of faded, dog-eared photographs of weddings, christenings and other milestone events going back decades, perhaps even a century or more with our ancestors dressed up in all their finery and looking resplendent on their special day.
Like me, some might even possess daguerreotypes, an early photographic process using an iodine-sensitised plate and mercury vapour invented in the late 1830s and named unsurprisingly enough after one Louis Daguerre, a French artist and chemist.
These items very often lie forgotten and dormant for years, tending to be rediscovered by accident when on the prowl for something else of more immediate importance which you think you might have put away for safe keeping. This has happened to me on a few occasions and before you know it, you’re sitting for hours on the edge of a bed in a spare room rifling through photographs that you’d forgotten you’d even possessed and squinting at characters long gone to their Maker. By the time you’ve finished, you probably can’t remember what you were looking for in the first place.
Unless you were royalty or part of the upper echelons of society, British weddings in the past were low-key affairs with only immediate family and very close friends present. The reception would be held back at the house or take the form of a knees-up at the local pub after the customary church service. As a child, I remember couples covered in confetti being waved off in a car borrowed for the occasion with shoes tied to the rear bumper as they set off for a couple of days’ honeymoon to a guest house by the seaside.
When my mother brought me to Cyprus for the two-month summer holiday from austerity Britain in the mid to late 1950s (nowadays people talk of ‘austerity’ with a nonchalance which borders on the insulting and is a total misinterpretation of the true meaning of the word), I recall going to the ancestral village in the Karpas and attending weddings which were as different from their British equivalents as chalk and cheese.
As with every Orthodox rite, there’s a theatrical element and it’s even more so at weddings with everyone playing their part. I recall the equivalent of the reception taking place in one of the village houses, probably belonging to the parents of one of the newly-weds, and they were joyous affairs with singing, dancing, music provided by men with fiddles and copious amounts of food and drink. (I’m reminded of a similar scene in the ‘Godfather’ with Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, dancing with his new wife in a Sicilian village during the wedding festivities).
At a certain stage, the happy couple would dance in the middle of the courtyard with the village elders seated around them and people pinning money on their clothes. In those days, the villagers wore traditional dress, the men their ‘vraga’ and sturdy boots, the women their long skirts, brightly coloured tunics and headgear resembling shawls. The men performed dances to a cacophony of clapping, shouting and ‘oppas’. Regrettably, these wonderful, traditional displays now tend to be a rarity but can be witnessed in hotels albeit in sanitised form with professional dancers in squeaky clean village kit strutting their stuff, balancing glasses on their heads and asking tourists to place another on top of the ever growing tower.
With more affluence has come the banishment of simplicity and the commercialisation of everything. Weddings in the Western world have attained a level of sophistication and grossness which have become excuses to flaunt the level of family wealth with costs often ballooning to the tens of thousands. There are the obligatory wedding planners, dresses with Swarovski crystals (the more bling the better, so I’m told), horses and carriages, photographers, videos to capture every moment, flowers, fireworks et al.
In Cyprus, the simplicity and joie de vivre which used to be the hallmarks of a traditional wedding have gone to be replaced by an unashamedly commercial enterprise.
These events have become impositions which people dread attending and only do so out of duty. Over the past decade, my wife and I have attended only two and have deftly declined going to a whole host of others by invoking as excuses other engagements, sickness or work commitments.
There’s a strict pattern which has to be followed. These days most skip the church ceremony and invariably proceed straight to the designated hotel for the reception where one has to queue in order to shake hands and embrace the couple and their respective parents, not forgetting to present an envelope with an appropriate card stuffed with crisp currency. The going rate at present is €50; anything less is deemed an insult. One then proceeds to the stand-up ‘feeding area’ which, depending on the largesse that the wedding families wish to dispense to the many hundreds of guests, can consist of a few simple nibbles with cheap fizz or a sumptuous array of canapés, numerous dishes and real Champagne. In short, it’s now a question of hoping upon hope that the calculation for the hotel bill is considerably less than the envelope ‘income’.
Christenings are now following the same pattern with church followed by a hotel reception with accompanying envelopes and catering of varying degrees of quality and quantity. The giving of envelopes has become part of the ritual, with yet another scene, this time from the film ‘Goodfellas’, illustrating the point, with members of the Mafia handing over plenty of them to the anti-hero, played by Ray Liotta, and his wife, on their wedding day.
Whatever next? Why not progress to the next stage where relatives stand next to open coffins with outstretched hands and expecting to receive envelopes from mourners who stand patiently in line before stuffing their faces with smoked salmon sandwiches and Prosecco. Nothing surprises any more.