How Chaldean weddings have changed across place and time
By Vanessa Denha Garmo
They are documented as the first Chaldean wedding on American soil. George and Susie Essa exchanged vows inside a Lebanese church on November 22, 1922 in Detroit.
“They had a very small wedding,” said Samira Essa speaking about her in-laws. “There were not many Chaldeans at all living here,” chimed in Peter Essa, the only son of George and Susie.
The photo of the Essa wedding is documented in books about Chaldeans and is now archived inside the Chaldean Cultural Center where Chaldean weddings are highlighted in the Faith and Church Gallery.
The gallery shows a wedding at Mother of God church. “We as Chaldeans use customs of our own and American customs for example,” said Mary Romaya, retired Director. “When I got married in the 70s and when my sisters got married in the early 60s in Detroit there was not a custom of putting crowns on the bride and groom yet, it is done today.”
“This was a custom not in Iraq but it became one in the United States however, it is liturgical,” said Fr. Manuel Boji. “It shows that this couple along with Christ have formed their own Kingdom and that their family is the own Kingdom with Christ.”
In Iraq, wearing of the bows on the groom’s arm was a common tradition that continued in America. The significance is that it is a Sacrament. Babies wear the same bow during a baptism, because that too is a Sacrament. At the Baptism it signifies that he is now a member of a Kingdom of God. At weddings, it signifies that is the groom is the king of his household.
“Back in Iraq, the best man had to be married, because it was required of them to pass on knowledge,” said Shamasha Kairi Foumia.
Here in America, it is not common for the best man or maid of honor to be married.
Chaldean weddings have changed over the years and as the community emigrated to the United States. “We have incorporated so much of the American traditions and Latin Rite into our ceremonies and celebrations,” said Romaya. “At the wedding we show inside the gallery you will hear someone singing the Ave Maria in Latin. That is not a Chaldean tradition or religious custom in our church.’
Romaya’s parents, Yelda and Zarifa Saroki were married in Telkaif in 1936. “My mother says after the church ceremony, she rode a horse,” recalled Romaya. “I said, ‘you mean a donkey? But, she said a horse and he was very gentle. She was paraded around the village from the church to her in-laws to show that she now belonged to her husband’s family and people would come out of their home and give her sweets or candy. It was a village affair. Everyone was part of the celebrations, the entire village not just the families.”
When Romaya’s sisters were married in the 60s, she remembers the entire community attending the wedding. It was still a very small community in Detroit then. Also, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chaldean weddings were actual full masses.
“That is a Latin tradition,” said Fr. Boji. “Weddings were never part of the mass or included a full mass in Iraq. We adopted that tradition from the Latin Rite and then we went back to our traditions of a wedding ceremony.”
Romaya remembers her sister marrying on a Sunday at Mother of God church when it was on Hamilton Street in Detroit “The wedding was part of the Sunday Mass that day,” she said. “The entire congregation witnessed the Sacrament of Marriage and took communion. It was so nice. I realize with the size of the community today, it is not feasible to have wedding ceremonies include a full mass.”
In those years, the weddings were day-long affairs and sometimes lasted several days. “I am old enough to remember how wedding traditions have changed over time,” said Romaya. “They might start out with breakfast and the entire event would last all day into early morning hours the next day.”
When Peter and Samira Essa married in Bagdad in 1958, their celebrations lasted about four days in the capitol city and then seven more days in Telkeppe where Peter Essa had relatives living.
“In Telkeppe, they celebrated for us from early morning to night with food, dancing and singing in the streets,” recalled Samira. “They didn’t want it to end,” said Peter.
The two married at Our Lady of Sorrow’s church in Baghdad just a few blocks from Samira’s home. “It was a beautiful ceremony,” she said. “They recited all the beautiful prayers you hear at our wedding ceremonies here. We married at night around 7:30.”
“There 12 priests at the ceremony,” said Peter. “After we were married, we all walked back to my in-law’s house.”
“They recited the prayers, they blessed us and we exchanged our rings,” said Samira. “I had a maid of honor and Peter had a best man.”
Samira rented her dress from a local boutique. “We had beautiful stores like we have here in America,” she said. “But, I didn’t buy my dress.”
However, she did purchase a dress to wear after she arrived in America for a wedding celebration her in-laws hosted at their home in Detroit for about 150 guests.
In the 40s and 50s, it was very common for the entire town to be involved in the wedding. That became less common in the 60s and 70s. “People started to actually create printed invitations at this time in Iraq,” said Fr. Boji. “In the 40s and 50s, they hosted two important events, the Henna and the Begana where they took food from the bride’s house to the groom’s house.”
This happened on the same day, typically a Saturday, but at different times of the day. “The henna then was a lot simpler than it is today in America,” said Fr. Boji. “It was just a few women and the close relatives with the mother-in-law.”
During this time period some wedding ceremonies would take place in the early morning hours around 2 or 3 a.m. “The tradition was that the father of the bride would not allow his daughter to leave the house without being married,” said Fr. Boji. “Usually early morning and it lasted a long time. Priests recited prayers and blessings.”
After the prayers and blessing, the bride and groom were taken out and paraded in a circle to the entire village. The drums and zurna were played. “As the bride and groom passed, people in the town, young men, would bring them a bottle of Arak. “It was a sign of respect,” said Fr. Boji.
Riding a horse was common in the 60s and 70 but not typically ridden by the bride. “They would put a mattress, the cover sheets and the pillows on a horse and young boys around 9 or 10 years old would sit on the mattresses,” said Fr. Boji.
Those invited to the wedding would gather at the groom’s house for dinner. The next morning, guests would gather again and bring the envelopes, the wedding gifts. “They usually cooked Pakota (Barley dish) for the guests the next day.”
There were traditional celebrations of dancing. “Usually before the wedding was a couple of days of gathering and some of the youth of that neighborhood would dance. But the day of the wedding itself, whomever wanted to dance could dance but it was not as big tradition for all weddings.”
In the 50s and 60s, the wedding ceremonies were moved to 10 or 11 in the morning. “The groom’s family would go to the bride’s family house and the youth boys about 15 or 16 years old would go to the door with a bottle of Arak and a chicken for mezza later,” said Fr. Boji. “This was like in the form of payment. They would not let the bride out of the house until this was paid.”
This is how the tradition became that the groom’s family paid for the wedding. Later the bottle of Arak and the chicken were replaced with money.
There was a similar tradition where the groom would go the bride’s house and young men would hit the bottom of their shoes with sticks until the bride’s family gave them Arak and a Chicken.
Although these traditions were left behind in Iraq, the significant traditions that remain in America are the prayers. The actual wedding vows today are from the Latin Rite. The blessing of the bride and groom and the rings are from Chaldean traditions.
“In 30s and 40s, vows were between the father of the groom and the father of the bride,” said Fr. Boji. “The father of groom was proposing and the father of bride in is accepting. This was part of the ceremony. In the engagement back then, it was not the bride and groom, it was groom’s father to the bride’s father. These traditions are in the liturgical books.”
In Iraq, the groom buys the dresses, “the Chass,” said Fr. Boji. “The brides’ family would kind of pay it back with making the food and putting money in the coat pocket of the groom. The entire town would see that the bride’s family would pay the groom back in this way.”
Also in Iraq, the marriages were arranged up until the 70s and early 80s.
Peter and Samir Essa knew each other for about three days before they married and didn’t speak to each other until about three days after the wedding. “Here is the picture of the two of us on the day Peter side hi to me and I said hi back,” said Samira as she pointed to the photo.
That was almost the limit of their conversations as Peter only spoke English and Samira only spoke Arabic and Chaldean.
“My mother-in-law would translate for me,” said Samira, ‘when I first arrived in the United States. She spoke Sourath. I loved it because I felt like I was speaking to my own mother.”
During these days of their wedding there was a revolution in Iraq and King Faisal’s regime was overthrown. Peter and Samira were unable to leave Iraq. “My passport was stamped by King Faisal,” said Samira. “It was no longer valid. I needed a new stamp by the Prime Minister.”
As an American, Peter was taken by the Embassy to stay in a hotel run by Chaldeans for protection. The newlyweds barely saw each other for the next two weeks.
“I was on the rooftop of our home one afternoon when my sister came in to tell me my husband was there to see me,” recalled Samira. “I never rushed so fast to finish a bath before in my life. I wrapped myself in this beautiful white robe my sister bought me.”
“She came down and I saw her with her hair wrapped in a towel,” said Peter.
“I looked at him as I walked down the stairs and at that moment fell in love,” said Samira. “I had no idea what love was until that moment.”
Wanting desperately to start her new life with her new husband, Samira mustered up the courage to go to Abd al-Karim Qasim’s residence that was heavily guarded. Peter hid a couple of blocks away behind trees. “I was too scared to even speak English,” said Peter. “They hated America at the time,” noted Samira. “We did not want the government to know I married an American.”
Shaking and tearful, Samira asked the guards at the door to see Qasim. “The guards looked at me like was crazy and even asked me if I was crazy,” she said. “I explained that I got married and wanted to move to America with my husband. One guard asked if I had my passport and told me that Qasim would certainly tear it to shreds if he got his hands on it.”
Samira took the risk. The guards grabbed her purse and threw it to the ground. Another guard approached and saw her, asking what she wanted. They explained and to the surprise of the military forces guarding Qasim The Prime Minister agreed to see the 17-year-old.
“I walked up the stairs with guards on each side of me lined up all the way the stairs,” she recalled. “I began to cry more and shake more. I entered the room and there sat Qasim. He looked at me and stood from this chair fit for a king. He asked me who I was and what I wanted. Speaking Arabic, I explained.”
He looked at the young woman and questioned why she would want to go the United States. “I tried explaining that I had just gotten married but he was so upset that I would want to leave Iraq.”
He asked her for her passport. “Surprising he stamped it and signed it. He put his stamp right over King Faisal’s stamp and signed it. His vice president or whoever he was also stamped it and signed it. He then walked over to me, patted my back and said, ‘don’t ever forget your Arabic.’ He blessed me and sent me on my way. I was in shock.”
Qasim ordered his guards to escort her back to the front doors. “The same guards that laughed at me when I walked in were actually saluted me,” said Samira. “They could not believe what happened. I felt like a queen at that moment.”
The couple left Iraq for Egypt. The American Embassy in Iraq had been blown to pieces in the revolution. They needed to finalize their paperwork in Egypt. From there they flew to Europe and eventually to New York. “Peter was on the phone at the time talking to his mother,” said Samira. “He was telling her we arrived in the United States. While he was busy on the phone, he didn’t hear the last call for our flight. I didn’t understand English so we missed our flight to Detroit.”
“It was a good thing,” said Peter. “When we finally arrived at Willow Run, we heard the flight we were supposed to be on crashed and people died.”
There was a large group of Peter’s friends and family waiting for the couple at the airport. “My friends actually had bets I would not get married,” Peter chuckled.
This June, Samira and Peter Essa will celebrate their 60-year anniversary as Peter turns 93 on the same day.
Although the traditions have changed over time and across the ocean, the Chaldean wedding ceremony is still very cherished. Today, there are about 500 wedding ceremonies that take place in the St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Diocese each year. There are many American traditions that have been incorporated in Chaldean weddings such as having a ring boy and flower girl or buying gifts for the bridal party. The bridal dance and father/daughter dance are all part of the American culture.
“Our prayers and our blessings are the same,” said Fr. Boji. “That is the most important part of the wedding. The ceremony and the Sacrament.”