Birthdays are a big deal and are seen as some of the major milestones in life, but in Greece, name days take the cake — so to speak — when it comes to personal celebrations and rituals.
In Greece, your birthday plays second fiddle to your name day, your “yiorti,” as it is known in Greek.
Your yiorti — your celebration, and the rituals that go with it, date back to the early martyrs of Christianity. Your name day, or more accurately, the feast day of the patron saint whose name you were given when you were baptized, is to be enjoyed with joie de vivre surrounded by family and friends in celebratory ritual.
And so, you celebrate as if it was your birthday, because in the Greek Orthodox church it actually is your “birthday.” Receiving the name of a Christian saint through baptism is your first day, your birthday, in your life as a Greek Orthodox Christian. Baptized, you can enjoy the rites of holy communion, marriage and burial in the church and other such rituals.
One of the rites of passage on a birthday is being given special treatment and being queen or king for a day. In the States and in the UK we go out and our friends buy us dinner, and drinks as part of the ritual of celebration.
Even the establishment where you are celebrating will often finish off your evening with a sweet treat topped off with sparklers or candles.
The reverse is true in Greece. You buy the drinks, the dinner, and provide the treats — both on your feast day and your birthday. The celebration means you follow the name day ritual to treat or to buy, because of the joy of having friends and family who gather to have fun.
You are responsible for the “kerazma,” the provision of both the savory and the sweet when you celebrate your name day or your birthday.
The notion of kerazma dates back to basic Greek hospitality, or “philoxenia.” No respectable Greek would allow you to come into his or her home without offering you at the very least a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Even more so at a time when you are celebrating a special occasion.
Contemporary Name Day Rituals
According to the Greek Orthodox Church, every day of the year is dedicated to the memory of at least one saint or martyr. If someone is named after a saint, then there is a big celebration on his or her name day.
The Greek Orthodox church follows the “eortologio,” the calendar of saint’s feast days, which associates each day of the liturgical year with a specific saint. Greek Orthodox varies from other Orthodox churches in their list of saints and feast days so not all names are recognized across Orthodoxy.
The first saints of the church were martyrs, willing to die to prove their love for and devotion to Christ. Most saints days are set for the martyr’s day of death and reunion with God in heaven, according to Christian teachings.
Most Greeks practice Greek Orthodoxy; however there are small communities of Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faithful in the country as well. Most Greeks are baptized into the Greek Orthodox church at a young age, carry the name of saint and celebrate their name days accordingly.
Baptismal Name Becomes Orthodox “Birthday”
Your baptismal name is your religious identity. Years ago the devout spent their name day in church, beginning with the evening vespers the night prior. Contemporary life does not usually allow for this, but in small villages in Greece, where there are chapels or small parishes, locals will offer the sweet bread offered on the feast day in what is known as an “artoclasia.”
In Greek homes there is a link for each family member to their saint by way of an icon. One wall or corner in the home is dedicated to a display of icons displaying the saints of the family members, as well as a crucifix, an icon of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and/or the Holy Trinity. It is known as the “iconostasio” of the home.
So if your family includes a Michael, Helen, Paul and Alexandra, your inconstasio will have icons of the archangel Michael, Saints Constantine and Helen, Saints Peter and Paul and Saint Alexandra, as well as Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Often icons are handed down from generation to generation, but if you purchase an icon from a craftsman or artist, the icon is placed in the church for 40 days to be blessed before it enters your home.
On the day of your saint’s feast day, you will receive plenty of phone calls, text messages and maybe even some Facebook posts wishing you well. This is all a part of the name day ritual. The traditional wish in Greek is “Xronia Polla,” or “Polyxronos,” which translates to “May you have many years.”
Not only will you receive good wishes, but members of your family will also receive a greeting. “Na ton Xerese,” translating to “May you be happy with and for this person,” is usually said to parents, spouses, brothers and sisters.
Along with the greetings via phone, friends and family will ask “Have you made plans to do something?” In other words, another part of that name day ritual is celebrating by going out to dinner with your family or more traditionally, hosting an open house in the evening to welcome friends and family for drinks, dinner or sweet treats.
If the feast day falls on a weekday, most folks will push the celebration to the weekend to a Friday or Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon — whether it takes place at home or at a restaurant or bar.
No Invitation Necessary to Name Day Celebration
Not long ago, name days were an open invitation to both friends and family. No invitation needed to be issued — if it was your name day, it was expected that your home would be open to welcome friends and family and it was all a part of the name day ritual.
Acceptable as that was even up until a decade ago, today because of busy lives and demanding work schedules, it would actually be considered rude now to just show up without an invitation.
The one thing that is definitely different in celebrating a name day instead of a birthday is that there is no ritual cake with candles delineating your age. There may very well be a cake that has your name on it, adorned with sparklers, that will be served to all the guests following the meal, but that is not considered a part of the name day ritual.
Beyond your circle of family and friends are your colleagues who join in on the fun. It is ritual to bring sweet treats to work on the day of your name day to share with your work buddies. You may walk around the office serving the treats and getting a few “Xronia Pollas” from your colleagues. Often, arrangements are made with co-workers to have dinner together if the celebration falls on a workday.
Also part of the name day ritual celebration is the “40 day rule.” Almost everything in Greek Orthodoxy revolves around a period of 40 days — fasting in preparation for a major feast, mourning following the death of a loved one and celebration when tied to a major feast.
For 40 days following Easter, in Greece people will greet one another by saying “Christos Anesti,” meaning “Christ has risen.” You respond to the greeting with “Alithos anesti,” meaning “Truly he has risen.” This greeting continues for 40 days through to Pentecost.
Using the 40 day rule, if you don’t manage to catch somebody on the day their saint celebrates, you have the next 39 days to call or text and say “Xronia polla.”
Moveable Feasts and Name Days
Some Greek Orthodox feast days share a date of celebration with other Christian denominations, and some are what is known as “moveable feasts.” The actual date of the saint’s name day will change based on when Easter occurs.
This happens in the case of Saint George. Normally, the date of celebration is April 23. However, if Easter is celebrated after April 23, the name day falls during Lent. No celebrations take place during that time — not a name day feast, nor a wedding or baptism. The day after Easter is then set aside to celebrate the feast of Saint George.
For folks named Lambros, Lambrini, Anastasios and Anastasia — these names literally translate to Easter and Resurrection — they celebrate on Easter, but as this is a moveable feast that changes date there is no set day or month, only the Easter celebration.
The celebration of Saint Theodore is yet another victim of the ever-changing date of Easter. Agion Theodoron, which translates to the “holy gifts of god,” is celebrated the Saturday following Clean Monday, the first day of Greek Orthodox Lent. So as the date of Easter changes, so changes the feast of Saint Theodore.
Multiple Days of Celebration
There are also some names that have multiple feasts such as Anna — there is a summer celebration, on July 25 and a winter celebration, on December 9. The winter saint’s day is known “Anna tis xionias,” which translates to “Anna of the snow.”
The name Maria has multiple celebrations as well as derivatives. Maria and Marios can celebrate on August 15, the day of Dormition, or November 21, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. In some places, coupled Marias, Panagiotas, and Despoinas celebrate on August 15. And the singles celebrate on November 21.
Anastasios and Anastasia also have separate name days beyond the night of the resurrection — Saint Anastasios celebrates in January and Anastasia — “Pharmakolytria,” which translates to healer — celebrates in December.
Usually most people tend to choose when they want to celebrate their name day; however, local traditions and customs can also influence their choice. In the Peloponnese, if your name is Angelos, which translates to Angel, you do not celebrate on November 8 as most Michaels and Angels. You celebrate on March 25, known as Evangelismos, when the Virgin Mary was informed she would birth Jesus. Also on this day Evangelias and Evangelos celebrate.
And what about gift giving? Can you buy your friend a gift as they celebrate a name day? Is there ever a time when it is inappropriate to receive a gift in celebration? Certainly not! So follow whatever rules you might use in selecting a birthday gift for a friend.
You can follow the link here to find the feast days of Greek Orthodox names in this calendar so you can be one step ahead when it comes to name day celebrations.
So what about birthdays in Greece?
But if you were to ask grandparents or older people in Greece, they might not even be able to give you an exact day as to when they were born.
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, such as a saint’s celebration or a local ritual.