As a member of a big fat Moroccan Jewish family, I attended many, many weddings as a child. My favorite memories were never of being the flower girl, or even of the beautiful chuppahs. The best part of a family wedding was the pre-wedding tradition of the henna party. My grandma would make beautiful marzipan cookies by hand, and my family would all dress up in traditional Moroccan outfits and get henna wrapped onto our hands. When I think back on it now, I can still vividly see the rich color scheme and smell the sugary mint tea.
And so, when I think about what lies ahead in my future relationships and the possibility of getting married one day, I don’t fantasize about a dress, or a wedding venue, or even floral arrangements. I daydream about celebrating my culture with my friends and family by following the traditions of the henna party.
Growing up in Los Angeles, henna art was something I always associated with the Venice Beach boardwalk — walking around with friends and getting matching “BFF” designs temporarily dyed onto our bodies — and not my Jewish heritage. Even though I had these memories of having henna wrapped to my palm at my aunt’s pre-wedding party, I never really grasped the meaning behind the tradition. I certainly didn’t realize henna wasn’t something other families — even other Jewish families — did at weddings; I thought it was a given.
Now, as an adult, I sought to understood where these henna customs originate, especially with regard to Jewish tradition. I reached out to an L.A.-based party planner, Tal Orion, a fellow Moroccan Jewish woman, to help get a better sense of modern Moroccan Jewish henna, and how henna parties are thrown today.
Before we dive in, it is important to note that henna parties are not exclusively a Moroccan Jewish tradition. Many Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities have their own unique expressions of these traditions depending on where they are from — including Yemenite, Iraqi, Iranian, Indian, and Syrian communities. But I am here to talk specifically about Moroccan Jewish henna.
What is henna, and why is it significant?
The henna plant originated from the Mediterranean and is made into a paste for many cosmetic and traditional uses. There are beliefs stemming from Berber culture that henna can protect you from the evil eye. There’s also a Moroccan custom of henna being “sprinkled in a bride’s shoes on the day of the wedding ceremony to help protect her from unseen earth-dwelling creatures known as djinn.” (The djinn, also known as genies, are a part of Arabic mythology.)
Other reasons for the henna application to the hands and feet of the bride include “marking her journey from childhood to womanhood.” Typically, it is the family matriarch, the bride’s mother or grandmother, who will apply the henna to the palms of the couple. The henna on the palm will “protect them from demons and symbolically bestow them with good health and wisdom” or “protect the couple from the evil eye and to bless them with good luck, health, and fertility.”
As Tal describes the henna ceremony, once the couple sits down, “we put henna on both of their hands, and we tie them together.” Henna is put in the middle of the groom’s palm, as well as the center of the bride’s palm, then a ribbon is used to tie them together. “The reason we’re doing it is to tie the relationship, to tie their future — it’s like a symbol of your time, of your connection.” The henna is symbolically shaped in a round circle, like a gold coin, to represent money and prosperity for the couple.
When is a henna party?
The henna party usually occurs before the wedding ceremony. In Morocco, it often happened one or two days before the wedding. Today, the ceremony can happen weeks before, but it is still more common for it to take place the week of the wedding. According to Tal, “usually, the mother of the bride is the one that’s supposed to host the actual ceremony, usually after the bride goes to the mikveh. Some places you see an old tradition where the bride needs to circle her house seven times. And once she’s entering the house, this is when the party begins.”
Where are henna parties hosted?
The location of the party is up to the discretion of the family. Traditionally, it might have been hosted in the bride’s home, though oftentimes it is now celebrated in a venue. Wherever it is hosted, the decorations are elaborate. Tal describes the classic colors as burgundy and gold.
“Gold always represents royalty, luck, prosperity,” Tal explains. “But you also see in the last few years a lot of white, because it’s pure. When I do events, I like to do more vivid colors. The last time I did it was mainly fuschia and orange — happy colors! — but of course, the gold was very dominant.”
Is there any traditional clothing involved?
Why yes, there is. The bride’s dress is called keswa el kbira, and the groom’s garment is called a jellabiya. The couple wear lavish outfits, and essentially “are the king and queen for the day.” Guests may also dress up in vibrant traditional clothing, often provided by the host. It is traditional that golden jewelry and other gifts are given to the couple by their families.
Is there food involved?
Of course! There are so many scents and textures and smells that come to mind when I think about the henna parties I attended as a child. The fragrant mint tea, the colorful and carefully crafted cookies, the spread of fruits and dates and nuts. The traditional marzipan cookies are prepared up to two weeks before the wedding, and were always a favorite of mine.
Tal explains that all the sweetness has a meaning: the cookies “have to be sweet, because their life needs to be sweet.” Among these sweets are colorful Jordan almonds, a rose shaped fried dough concoction known as chebakia, and mufletot, thin pancakes that are also served after Passover. Today, families may choose to serve traditional Moroccan dishes at their events as well, such as couscous, lamb, and tajines.
What are other henna party rituals?
After being adorned with henna, the couple is lifted in an ornate wedding carriage called an amaria. The guests will circle the couple and then sit next to them. The families of the bride and groom will dance with trays of cookies.
“I think it is happier than the actual wedding,” Tal said, “only because you’re bringing a tradition — something that’s been there for so many years. I’ve seen that families are investing so much money in these ceremonies just to make it look so beautiful. You realize how powerful this specific ceremony is. Very, very powerful.”
One day it will be up to me and my sister to continue this tradition. I can’t wait to celebrate with my friends and family (some time far in the future), enjoying the beautiful marzipan cookies and dancing in a decadent dress with beautiful henna wrapped around my hands.