As I encounter more and more Greeks and make bounds with them, it’s inherent to me to ask them: “When is your birthday?”. I want to remember it and celebrate it. However, when the answer comes back, they say: “Which one do you mean, my name day or the day I was born?”. – “Doesn’t matter”- “the one you celebrate” I answer. The thing is: they celebrate both!
Greek people assign to their children a name, nicknames, or diminutives derived from Saints of the Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox calendar is full of Saints, therefore is also full of anniversaries. Since religion is very important for Greek people, their name day is also more important than their birthday. People are not only celebrating the people but honoring the Saint. Since people are named after the Saint, it also makes it easier for people to remember your name day rather than the day they were born.
On these days, it is very common for family, friends, and basically, everyone to call. To pay a visit is also often expected. Name days mean also” Open house”, that is, everyone who wills could drop by your home without an invitation to wish you best. Some Saints or celebrations are more important. This also means that if you were named, for instance, Anastasios/Anastasia (coming from Anastasis meaning Resurrection), or Mary (Holy Mary), huge celebrations are carried out not only because of public holidays but because everyone will know your name-day.
If you don’t call, it is very bad seen, people get offended. If you don’t celebrate it is also an issue since your parents and family are expecting you to have dinner, feast, and moment together. I asked one of my friends, Foteini, what does she do on her name-day and birthday to get an image of the difference.
Foteini, derivates from the word “Fos”, which in Greek means light. Therefore, Fotis means the enlightened one. St. Fotios whose celebration happens every 6th of January is the most important holiday for the Greek Orthodox Church, also known as Theophania or Epifania. Foteini my friend, explain to me that she took the name from her grandmother who also is celebrated on this day. The celebration starts going to the Church in the morning, afterward gathering with friends and family to eat till night. This is a big celebration since is also the Lights Festival in Greece.
On the contrary on her birthday, she will go out for a drink with her friends, buy a cake in the bakery and that’s all. Both are important to her. But if she has to pick one, will be the name-day.
Thus, if you want to celebrate with your Greek friends, have in mind that they celebrate for 2 days, pay a call and why not an invitation. If you forget it, never mind, you still have a second chance to give your wishes!