A Chaldean Wedding Survival Guide

So it’s your first time at a Chaldean wedding and you feel kind of awkward.  At church, you see only about 50 people when you heard there would be 600. You shrug it off as you make your way to an empty pew, passing by several women in Oscar-style gowns and men in ordinary suits from Macy’s.

You’re amazed by how many photographers the marrying couple has hired only to realize there is just one, and the rest are their relatives.  When the groom walks down the aisle, you are jolted out of your seat because the women start making this shrill, bizarre sound with their mouths. They are smiling so you figure it was probably a good thing. You can’t help but stare at the white bow on this groom’s left arm though.

The bridal party walks down, and finally the bride and her father do too — and there go the women making that yodeling sound again!  After the couple walks up to the altar, the priest places crowns atop their heads. Alas! You start hearing prayers you recognize in English … and then it’s Aramaic.  You try to keep up anyway. 

After all the singing, kneeling, praying, standing and preaching, the ceremony is over.  The couple is announced as husband and wife, everyone claps, and those ladies make that noise again. You smile and wave to the bride and groom, and you Tweat about this unique experience while you walk to the car. 

You just don’t know what else you’re in for at the reception.

In the recent past, we’ve tried to make our non-Chaldean friends comfortable at weddings by inviting them to pre-parties, making wedding programs, and having more “American music time.”  The truth is that Chaldean weddings are different, and we want our friends who come from different backgrounds to understand our customs and appreciate our culture, even when some of us don’t have a clue either. 

Here’s your survival guide.

The Halhole
A yodel?  A cackle?  We never know what to call it or compare it to except perhaps a Native American chant.  Well, not really.  It’s a high-pitched sound made by flapping your tongue and repeating “la, la, la.”  (You might have seen joyous Egyptian women doing it on the news lately after the peaceful revolution.) A woman may cushion the piercing noise by placing a hand close to her mouth, or go all out and grab the microphone at the reception. Regardless, it’s a sign of love and respect, and those who do it are usually very close to the bride and/or groom. Have no fear — they’re not gearing up for war; they’re just expressing their joy and it’s another way of saying, “congratulations!”

The Crowns
No one is competing with Prince William and Kate the Commoner.  Instead, the bride and groom are emulating Christ and his Church.  Like Christ is head of the Church, the man is the head of his wife.  This is not sexist at all — Christ needs the Church to maintain God’s glory, just like a husband needs his wife to help him maintain Christian values in their family.  Their relationship is equal; they need one another to persevere.

The White Bow
It’s called a kalila and it means “crown.”  Not the kind of crown that goes atop your head, but a symbolic crown meaning the groom is taking leadership as head of the family.  It is often adorned with gold and perhaps other “riches” like animal teeth or rubies. This figuratively represents the hope that he and his new bride are “rich” in love. 

The Zeffa

The zeffa is essentially “the first dance” as husband and wife, and the happy couple is ushered into the banquet hall in a frenzy of halholes and traditional belly dancing.  Hundreds of people are seeing them as a married couple for the first time, since only the closest family and friends actually attend the church ceremony (although all are welcome to do so). Even if you’re not a dancer, you should get up for this one.  Otherwise, it looks impolite and you don’t want to be caught on camera stuffing your face when you should be welcoming the bride and groom to their table.
The Instruments.

A zerna is a wind instrument, most closely resembling a flute, and a tabil is a drum.  Two men passionately play the zerna and tabil to pump up the party while guests belly dance in the middle or line dance.  These musicians are sometimes invited to the bride’s house or even to the church, but you’ll usually see them at the wedding during the zeffa and after dinner.  It’s a fun musical mix to the night that’s usually full of Chaldean and Arabic singing, as well as Top 40 American hits. 

The Late Dinner

Chaldeans love to do everything late [insert Chaldean time joke here].  By tradition, Iraqis take their time, while American Chaldeans like to rush.  Back in the day in the old country, dinner was served late in the evening.  Immigrants continued that habit, especially as many got into the grocery business and worked long hours. Nowadays, it’s become customary to wait till 10 p.m. to ensure that everyone has left work and is there, even if they’re not closing the store.  And it’s about that time to leave the bar area anyway.
The Bridesmaids’ Dresses

Whether the bridesmaids’ gowns are simple or elaborate, they have usually been paid for by the bride and/or her family.  It’s considered an honor to stand up in a wedding, and it would be disrespectful for a bride to ask her closest female friends and cousins to pay for a dress. Besides, these flattered females “pay it back” in the form of a substantial cash wedding gift. 

Who Foots the Bill?
The old school way was for the groom’s parents to pay for everything from the tuxedos to the flowers to the food.  But our marrying men now have grown more independent from their families and pay deposits themselves. It depends on the economic situation though. The truth is, it’s the guests who pay with their generous gifts of money.  Unlike traditional American weddings, Chaldeans do not receive gifts off a registry but envelopes of cold, hard cash.  Most couples use that money to pay off the debts they incurred when planning the wedding. So how much should you give?  It’s to your discretion, but an average gift-per-person is about $100.

article by: Crystal Kassab-Jabiro