Today is the day you will see a number of people post good wishes on my Facebook timeline. But it won’t be for a birthday, anniversary, or graduation. This day is much bigger than that in the eyes of Greeks, whether they live in Greece, Canada, England, Australia or the U.S. You see, today is the day for which my patron saint, Constantine, and his holy mother, Helen, are honored – martyrs so revered in the Greek faith (or any of the Eastern Orthodox faiths as well) that for centuries, Greeks have named their children after them.
Any Greek you speak to will quickly acknowledge that name days outrank birthdays in anticipation, scope and significance, and they will also tell you they are a lot more enjoyable because everyone is celebrating at the same time. My Athenian cousins pointed out to me when I asked why this is so much more fun than birthdays and their answer made sense. “No one has to remember a specific date to honor you, so we just check our calendars, then look through our address books for everyone we know named Peter, or Dena, or George, or Paul (etc.) and we know who we will be calling or seeing that day.”
Naming conventions in Greece are still observed, with the result that certain names are used for many individuals in a generation. Remember the scene out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Gus Portokalos is introducing the extended family to his future “dry-as-toast” in-laws? “Welcome to my home. Over here is my brother, Ted, and his wife, Melissa, and their children, Anita, Diane and Nick. Over here, my brother Tommy, his wife Angie, and their children, Anita, Diane and Nick. And here, my brother George, his wife Freda, and their children, Anita, Diane and Nick. Taki, Sophie, Kari, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, uh, Nikki, and I am Gus.”
Simple explanation. While Gus’ siblings and their spouses all had different names, they all named their children after grandparents who were, in turn, all named for their grandparents until it traces back to their all being named for saints – St. Nicholas, St. Sophia – or even ancient Greek gods or goddesses, such as Diane.
Because of these naming rules, in some cases the same names have been used in an unbroken line for hundreds of years in a single family, if not longer, just as in Gus’ family. Some names even reflect a particular part of Greece or its history, such as how there is an abundance of “Pauls” on the south coast of Crete, where St. Paul is said to have been shipwrecked nearly two thousand years ago.
While not as common, the practice of naming children after mythological gods or goddesses still happens, such as with the names Dionisis, Apollo or Aphrodite, but somewhere along the way, a saint may have had that moniker anyway, since there were several St. Dionysises (Agios Dionysos) who would be the relic honored rather than for the wine-loving, party-hearty Greek god.
But what’s most fun about name days is that the day usually includes a party and small gifts to the honoree. Families and friends travel in “troupes” to visit everyone close to them who has a name associated with that particular saint’s day. It is said that in past times, this was open to literally anyone passing on the street, but most parties these days are by invitation. Obviously, people of the same name will usually know where all the celebrations are, because most are celebrated in that person’s home, who “receives” guests in open house fashion, with a huge culinary spread offered all day long.
In Greece, since the saint is also having a celebration, people visit any local church named for that saint as well, make an offering and lighting a candle in remembrance of that saint’s sacrifice or significance. Bigger churches will put on the larger festivals, often with free food and drink, but even the smallest of chapels will commemorate their saint's special day in some way. Many of the little chapels you see in rural or cluster-village areas will only be open once a year on the day of their saint. I can recall being in my father’s village on St. Mary’s Day – one of the church’s biggest holidays -- where Greeks traveled from all over Greece to their family’s ancestral villages to crowd around churches the size of a small living room, donkeys braying in the background and everyone dressed in their best. And if the village itself is named for the saint, even travelers who happen to be nearby at the time can count on witnessing a terrific party on that day.
Greek children or those of the diaspora will never complain, however, since they get a full TWO days of the year – both their birthdays and their namedays – to be recognized, honored and partied over.
So next time you see one of your generations-removed Greek friend’s timelines plastered with good wishes on a day you know is not that friend’s birthday, be sure to wish him or her a hearty “Hronia Polla” – (Many years to you). We welcome any and all those who recognize this tradition. And there may even be a little food in it for you.