Every culture has dozens of traditions when it comes to weddings and Turkey is no exception. It classically starts with a man proposing to a woman, and that marks the beginning of the joy and fun that have no limits.
There are a few events and ceremonies that take a place before the actual wedding in Turkey. The first one in line is “kız isteme,” when the groom’s family comes to meet the bride’s family. Usually, the elders of both of the families meet at the bride’s family house and talk.
As a tradition, Turkish coffee is served to all guests. Then, after a while, the groom’s father (if not, their mother or someone important in the family) starts a speech ending with “we want your daughter as a wife for our son.” The bride’s family would ask her if she agrees and if she says yes, the families determine the dates of the next events, which include the nişan (the engagement party usually organized by the bride’s family), the henna night and the wedding itself.
I moved to Istanbul almost nine years ago, but to my luck, I never got a chance to attend a traditional Turkish henna night up until last month. I had read a lot about it online and seen it in Turkish TV series or on social media, but I was still more than excited when I received an invitation to attend a henna night and got a chance to see it all with my own eyes. I couldn’t wait for the day to come.
The sun had already set when I arrived at the location. The venue, where the event was going to take place, was out of the city surrounded by beautiful forest so the only sound you could hear was the music inside. The moment I arrived I was taken to the bride’s room or “gelin odası” in Turkish.
Traditionally, on a henna night, the bride wears a red dress and sometimes a traditional cloak, which is usually adorned with gold embroidery referred to as “bindallı.” I had a chance to have a quick chat with the bride-to-be before I walked inside the venue to take my seat and enjoy the performance that was just about to start. A few minutes later the bride entered the venue with three female dancers surrounding her and dancing to oriental music. It looked exactly like the scenes from Turkish movies! A few moments later I found myself dancing in the middle of the venue with dozens of more girls. Despite the fact that I was not familiar with the songs playing and obviously had no idea how to dance as most of them were traditional wedding songs, I enjoyed it from the bottom of my heart as I felt more than welcome.
The next step of the henna night is when it’s time for the henna dyeing to begin. The lights go out and the bride-to-be sits in the middle of the group of ladies while everyone else gathers around her. Then, the single young ladies start to walk in a circle around her with candles in their hands. The traditional tear-jerker song "Yüksek yüksek tepeler," a song about longing for family and hometown, is usually played, making the moment a bit more emotional. Once the henna is ready, the bride-to-be sits in the center on a chair with a veil over her head, which is also usually red, a color believed to represent love and belonging.
The elder in the family is tasked with placing a dollop of henna in the bride-to-be’s palm, but first, the mother-in-law is supposed to place a gold coin in her hand, which is believed to bring good fortune. In fact, the bride is supposed to keep her fist closed until she does so. When the henna has been applied, the bride’s hands are wrapped in a red cloth. After that, the emotional music stops and everyone goes back to dancing.
Another tradition which is also done in some parts of Turkey on the henna night is called “testi kırmak.” Testi is a kind of clay pot that is stuffed with money, candy and chocolate and is wrapped in red see-through fabric. The groom-to-be sits on a chair. The bride dances around the groom, shaking the pot in her hand, and unexpectedly throws it to the ground and breaks it. It is believed that this brings lifetime happiness to the new family.
After all the traditional “rituals” are completed the bride along with guests goes back to the dance floor to celebrate. It is almost impossible to find an event in Turkey that will not include “halay" and "horon," folk dances from southeastern Anatolia and the Black Sea regions. Typically, halay dancers form a circle or a line, while holding each others' fingers, shoulders or even hands. The last and the first dancer may hold a piece of cloth. It usually begins slowly and speeds up. The moves are not complicated, so even if you have never done it before it is pretty easy to catch up with the flow. At least, I felt like it is, although I can’t guarantee that I really managed to do it well.
At the end of the night, each guest gets a little gift. These could be henna-inspired cookies, hair accessories, candles, sweets or anything else that can come to your mind.
The tradition of the henna night has undergone obvious changes since the Ottoman period but the main goal to celebrate has remained unchanged. The atmosphere, music and of course people made the night absolutely special. For me, it was a truly unforgettable experience.
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