“Who’s name day is it today?”
“Ours,” respond the three Marias at our Athens-based office. Custom dictates they bring a box each.
I just can’t keep up and neither can my waistline. Really, some months feature an endless procession of name day celebrations and obligatory eating of syrup sweets.
Those which are critically essential (mine, my parents, the kids I babysat) are dutifully recorded in my diary; without a Greek calendar hanging on my wall, I simply don’t remember them all. Surely there's an App for that somewhere?
Before I lived in Greece, I could never remember my own name day and was always surprised when mum called to wish me “many happy years”.
“But my birthday was last month,” I’d remind her.
HRONIA POLLA (many happy years) is one of those multi-purpose Greek expressions that’s used for birthdays, name days, New Year’s Day, Easter and Christmas. Handy, yet confusing.
As young children, my Greek friends and I eagerly looked forward to our birthday celebrations and wondered what the fuss was about with name days. We figured it was one of those quaint festivities perpetuated only by our parents, aunts and uncles.
Greeks, however, consider name days more important than birthdays and celebrate them religiously (literally).
Even now, my folks invariably call me a day late for my birthday, but always ring without fail on my name day.
Name day etiquette
In Greece, you can easily get away with not remembering someone’s birthday – even with children; however, it’s considered rude if you fail to acknowledge their name day.
With the proliferation of Johns, Georges, Marias, Nicks, Bills, Helens, Cons, Annas, Michaels, Chris and Christines in most families, it’s extremely difficult not to notice the festivities. Just follow the pedestrians with a white cardboard sweet box under their arm.
On the appointed day you’re required to call and wish that person “Hronia polla” – many years.
My Greek relatives often held open house celebrations with sweets and drinks on offer. They never issued invites, but expected a constant stream of relatives, neighbours and friends.
Greek naming conventions still follow strict guidelines: the first born boy is named after the paternal grandfather, the second boy after the maternal grandfather, first girl after the paternal grandmother and so on.
Having two boys and two girls is the ideal, as this keeps both sets of grandparents happy and ensures the continuation of family names. It doesn’t leave much room for individuality, unless you’re planning on a big family.
As the first born, I therefore carry my father’s mother’s name, while my two brothers are named after our grandfathers (dad’s father first, then mum’s father).
Now, if my two brothers each produced a son, they’re expected to name him after our dad, while I’d be required to name the boy after my husband’s father. The exception to this rule is if my husband was a non-Greek and not fussed about naming rights, in which case dad would throw his hat in the ring.
Holy saints, Batman
Most Greeks are therefore named after an officially sanctioned Greek Orthodox saint – again, think John (Joanna), George (Georgina), Nick (Nicky), Chris (Christina), Kon (Konstantina), Anna, Michael and so on.
Each saint has a special feast day which is when Greeks also celebrate their name days. For a complete list, check out the name day calendar.
Those who bestow an ancient Greek or pagan name on their children not only risk the wrath of the grandparents, but are considered less devout than those who stick strictly to church-sanctioned names.
However, those people who don’t have an official name day are lumped together on the day of All Saints and can still celebrate this generic name day.
Still, others have ‘floating’ name days which vary each year depending on the date of the Orthodox Easter. (Yes, some of us get to celebrate two Easters, but that’s another story).
Postscript: You’d think Facebook would’ve figured out by now the need for a name day option on people’s profile pages, just after the birthday field. It’d certainly help me remember all my relatives’ and Greek friends’ name days!
Oh, and for the record, my name day is on 10 February.