Name Day in Greece is a tradition followed by Orthodox Christians for centuries. A large percentage of Greeks are baptized into the Greek church at a young age, carry the name of saints and celebrate their name days. So, if you are planning a trip to Greece or have any Greek friends this is a tradition you will definitely come across.
The Greek Orthodox church follows the “eortologio” or calendar of saints, which associates each day of the liturgical year with a specific saint. There are differences and variations between the calendars of different Christian churches and not all names are included in all calendars or recognized by all churches. In English, the day a saint is celebrated is known commonly referred to as “a feast day”. The first saints of the church were martyrs, or those that had shown their love and devotion to Christ till death. As a result, most saint days are still set for the day of death and the return to heaven.
And as people name their children after these celebrated saints or martyrs, the named child celebrates the day of the saint as his name day.
Nowadays everyone know the day of their birth. However, this particular didn’t seem as important to the Orthodox Christians in Greece in the past as we find it today. From their point of view, birth signifies the day of entering this world, and the simultaneous fall from heaven. Therefore, celebrating this day was rather frowned upon.
It was only remembered, if remembered, for legal and documentation purposes. If you were to ask the grandparents or older people in Greece, they might not even be able to give you an exact day for when they were born.
Most of the time, the date on their birth certificate and legal documents will be an estimate, a day their parents thought was close enough to the real one. They remember that day by other important milestones like the first snow, or the name day of another saint.
Meanwhile, the church does not consider wishing someone a happy birthday as a sin, however, they actively discourage celebrations, parties, or festivities to mark the day.
Traditionally, they are named after one of their grandparents who mostly have names of saints already. So adopting names from them is the best way to maintain a connection with their ancestors and religious figures. Typically the firstborn child gets the name from paternal grandparents, and the second child adopts it from maternal grandparents.
In case there is any contention between parents or among families regarding the order, this is solved by the baby getting two names, one of each.
However, there is no fixed order, parents can decide the course of the process entirely. They can change the order or even choose to not go for any of the grandparents, and simply give them a new name.
Priests would often also demand that ancient Greek names be coupled with a Christian name if there is no saint or martyr already carrying it, though that depends a lot on the priest and their sensibilities.
Most name days have a specific standard date. For example, the name day for Ioannis is 7th January.
However, there are some name days that ‘‘float’’ meaning they don’t have a fixed date. They can be celebrated on different dates each year as they are linked to other movable holidays, such as Easter. An example of such name day is St. George – whose name day is normally celebrated on April 23rd however if Easter is after that date, it is celebrated on Easter Monday to avoid breaking the fasting of Lent.
The most popular floating name days are Zoi, Georgia, George, Thomas, and Lazaros.
Besides floating names, there are some name days that can be celebrated more than on more than one time a year, specifically names associated with Virgin Mary, such as Maria, Mary, Despoina, and Panagiota.
There is a Greek Orthodox Calendar listing names of all saints and martyrs with the dates of their commemoration. These listed days are used as name days for people carrying their names. However, there can also be names that are not listed in the calendar, and thus, celebrated on the specific day of “All Saints Day”.
It is the day when all the nameless Christians who died for their faith over the centuries are commemorated together with the named ones.
Your name is your religious identity. Thereby, religiously and culturally, name days are about honoring the saint whose name you carry. When a saint is honored at church the prayers and blessings include everyone else that is a carrier of that name.
In the past, people used to spend their name day in church. The practice would start the evening before your name day begins during vespers.
Moreover, they used to have a small, dedicated corner in their homes, called “iconostasi” where pictures or a few icons of their respective saint were displayed. It showed their connection and dedication to the saint. The icons need to first have been blessed in a church and there is also an oil-burning candle that needs to be lit at all times.
In addition to church duties, culturally people celebrate the occasion by hosting an open house, where anyone is welcome to drop by. People usually come together with numerous delicious dishes and enjoy tasty delights. One of the reasons why it is also called “the feast day”. However, they must bring something – sweets, flowers, gift cards, or gifts. And the host serves them warm tea, good food, music, and company.
The customary wish is “xronia polla” which translates into “have many years”.
Xronia polla is a general wish for everyone. However, if you want to say something more specific, you can also use the phrase “xronia polla gia tin giorti sou” which means “happy name day”, and then follow up with more wishes such as “God bless you with good health”, or more personalized messages.
It is also very important to remember and congratulate the person on their name day. You can forget their birthday, but never forget their name days – they can and do mind! Not calling or even leaving a note of good wishes on social media is considered a serious social faux pas or an intentional slight… Oh yes!!
If you want to partake in this tradition, and you are of Christian faith, you can! If your name is one you share with a particular saint, then the day of their commemoration is your name day. If your name doesn’t match, then All Saints Day is your name day!