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Namedays - The Greek Celebration More Popular than Birthdays

While in many countries around the world, one's birthday is cause for much joy and celebration, in Greece you will find that things are a bit different! Although it is indeed common for birthdays to be celebrated, they are often not celebrated to the degree that Greeks celebrate other 'giortes' (γιορτές) or "holidays," especially namedays!

What is a name day?

A nameday, or ονομαστική γιορτή (onomastikí giorti), is a tradition of celebrating the day of the year associated with one's baptismal name. The person's name is almost often related to a saint or holiday of the church; as such, this tradition in Greece is tied closely to the Greek Orthodox Church.

As mentioned in the title, namedays in most of Greece are more commonly celebrated than birthdays. This is mainly because from an Orthodox Christian point of view, the association of your name with the saints of the church and the significance this holds is much more important than the day you arrived onto Earth. In today's world, although birthdays serve a purpose for legal and governmental matters, this was not always the case in Greece. In fact, some older Greek people may not even know the exact date of their birth. My great grandmother, for example, had only an estimate of the day she was born - not an exact date.

When is your name day?

Since almost every day of the year is dedicated to a saint, holiday, or martyr of the Christian church, if you are named after one of these your name day will be on the same day as their feast day. Both culturally and religiously, namedays mark an occasion to honor the saint whose name one carries. As most people in the Greek Orthodox Church are named after saints and then baptized as babies, the names hold a great deal of significance. Other people, who have been baptized with a different name than their given name or legal first name, will celebrate their name day on the day which corresponds to the saint with the name they've been baptized with. My first name is Lia, but I was baptized as Anastasia, so I would celebrate on the day that corresponds to the name Anastasia... but more on that later in this post.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this tradition. For example, some of the many saints in the Greek Orthodox Church have similar or shared names thus certain people have the choice of when to celebrate their namedays - on the feast day of the saint or on certain holidays. Certain names such as Anastasios / Αναστάσιος (male) or Anastasia / Αναστασία (female) may be celebrated on different days. In this example, the name Anastasios or Anastasia comes directly from the Greek word for resurrection ( ανάστασις "anastasis"), so someone with this name could either celebrate on Orthodox Easter or on the feast day of St. Athanasios / St. Anastasia. So, an Anastasios may celebrate his nameday either on Orthodox Easter (the date changes every year) or on the feast day of Saint Anastasios (January 22nd). This same situation would apply to the name Maria. For example, someone named Maria would celebrate on the same day that the origin of this name, the Virgin Mary, celebrates. This is most commonly celebrated on the 15th of August, the day that the dormition of the Virgin Mary is celebrated, or on November 21st, the day the Presentation of the Virgin Mary is celebrated. So, someone named Maria would choose on which one of these days she wants to celebrate her nameday. This applies to a Greek named Maria, an Italian named Mary, or a French woman named Mariam.

Other common examples:

  • Christmas - the day people with names like Christos, Christine, Christina, or Chrisanthi celebrate

  • New Years - Basil, Vasilis, Vasiliki, Vaso, Vasilios, Vicky

  • Easter - Anastasios, Anastasia, Anestis, Tassos, Natasha, Tasoula, Lambros, Paschalis

  • Dormition or Presentation of the Virgin Mary - Panagiotis, Despoina, Maria, Panagiota, Marios

To add to the confusion, an individual may only celebrate his or her name day one time per year. This means someone whose name presented them with a choice of when to celebrate would still only get to celebrate once, not twice. I was baptized as Anastasia, so I have chosen to observe the tradition of celebrating my nameday on Orthodox Easter, rather than on the feast day of Αγία Αναστασία Agia Anastasia (St. Anastasia), because Easter day is special to me in many ways.

Circular cookie cake with the words 'Happy Name Day Anastasia' written on top in pink and white icing
Cookie cake my husband bought for me on my nameday this year!

Even if one's name is not related in any way to a saint or religious holiday, he or she will still have a nameday. If this applies to you, you would celebrate on the feast of Aghion Panton Αγίον Πάντον (All Saints Day), so no need to feel left out! This special day covers everyone whose name is not related to the church tradition. This feast day, like that of Easter, is a movable feast day which is celebrated roughly 56 days after Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday. Namedays are such a big part of the Greek and Cypriot culture that sometimes people who aren't even religious will still celebrate their namedays despite not following in the traditions of the church.

If you are curious to find out more about other namedays or information on which names celebrate when, you can find them all listed out here if you're interested.

How are name days celebrated?

Xrónia Pollá (Χρόνια Πολλά) or Polyxronos (Πολύχρονος) are the greetings you will hear most commonly on someone's nameday. These phrases express a wish that the person celebrating will live "many years" and are also a way to spread good wishes. During a nameday, it is tradition to call or write the person/people celebrating to wish them 'be blessed with many years' and also να ζήσεις 'na ziseis' or ' live long'. When visiting this individual, it's polite to take along a gift (usually something such as sweets, flowers, or a plant). A unique aspect of the nameday tradition is that the person's family will also receive warm wishes and greetings from others on this special occasion. It is common practice to greet the individual's family members with well wishes. With certain Greek naming traditions of naming children after other family members or after the same saints, it's easy to see how, in a family with multiple 'Georges' or 'Georgias,' the feast day of Saint George could become a major celebration!

How to congratulate other people on someone’s name day

  • Να τον χαίρεστε! “Na ton hereste!” – Sharing wishes for a male friend in a formal or plural way (perhaps to his parents or whole family)

  • Να την χαίρεστε! “Na tin hereste!” – Sharing wishes for a female friend in a formal way (perhaps to her parents or entire family)

  • Να τον χαίρεσαι! “Na ton herese!” – Sharing wishes for a male friend in an informal way (perhaps to the partner of your friend or to someone you know fairly well)

  • Να την χαίρεσαι!“Na tin herese!” – Sharing wishes for a female friend in an informal way (perhaps to the partner of your friend or to someone you know fairly well)

Typically, in Greece or Cyprus you see the individual celebrating hosting the celebrations or treating others, like friends, family members, or colleagues, to snacks, sweets, or refreshments. When I worked in Cyprus, people would stop at the fournos before work and bring in small savoury snacks for everyone in the office. The best day was the feast day of Saint George because we had so many Georges in the office that we'd spend all morning indulging in the variety of sweets and other treats they'd brought in for us!

In the Greek diaspora communities I've been a part of, namedays are not always celebrated as much as they are in Greece and Cyprus. This makes sense, as in the Western world birthdays hold significance not only for legal and governmental/identification matters, but also in social matters. However, this depends on the community as I'm sure there are larger communities that make a bigger deal out of namedays.

As someone who is a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian, I think the nameday tradition is a beautiful one. I wish we celebrated our namedays more in the Greek diaspora communities in the US and gave reverence to these special days not only as a day to recognize the person celebrating, but also as an occasion to remember and honor the magnificent lives of the saints from whom we take our names!


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