Name Days

Agios NikolaosRecently, it was my husband’s Name Day. His name is Nikolaos (Nicholas in English) after his paternal grandfather, and the Greek Orthodox saint Nikolaos. Agios Nikolaos, in the the Orthodox tradition, is celebrated every December 6th. Usually there are services held at the Church – since it is the celebration of a saint – and family celebrations at home. Phone calls abound with wishes such as “Xronia Polla!” (Many years!) and some gifts may be opened.

It wasn’t until recently in Greece that people actually celebrated their birthdays. Usually only the name day was celebrated because the saint was more important than the individual. Since there were usually a number of people in one family having the same name – uncles, aunts, and cousins – the family would gather for a large party after returning from the services at church. There may be larger celebrations depending upon the saint. If it is the patron saint of a particular church or town, there might even be a parade or festival.

I had never heard of a Name Day until I met my husband. The concept was completely foreign. It is, however, interesting to learn its deep rooted tradtion. Naming a child in the Greek tradition means that he or she will be given the name of an Orthodox saint. Also, if it is the first born son, he will be named after his paternal grandfather. The first daughter is usually named after the paternal grandmother. This keeps the family names going generation after generation.

My son, Anastasios, was named after his grandfather – Nick’s father, but I interjected with my traditions by giving him a middle name, which is not a Greek naming convention. My daughter was given my Grandmother’s name as her first name – which also happens to be a Greek saint – Anna. There was some to do about this since there had never been an Anna in the family before on my husband’s side. No one really new when her name day should be. We chose December 9th – the saint day of Anna, the mother of Mary.

There are Greek names, that are still in use today, that are not saint names. For instance, Socrates, Aristotle, and Heracles are ancient names used before the time of Christianity. In further research I found that the use of these names “can mean that family is considered to be less devout than those that stick strictly to church-sanctioned names. However, there are many saints that were named for the Greek gods or goddesses originally, so Dionisis is usually named for one of several St. Dionysises (Agios Dionysos) rather than for the wine-loving, party-hearty Greek god.” (About.com: Greek Name Days)

Our family is not particularly religious but my husband and I appreciate tradtion. My father-in-law was pleased as punch to have a grandson named after him. Its neat to know that the name Anastasios Kanellopoulos goes back at least six generations to the beginning of the 1800’s. Unfortunately records beyond that are difficult to attain – I surmise mainly due to the Turkish occupation – especially about those who lived in small villages. Rather, most of the information is passed on verbally.

Each year I try to make it a special occation for the kids. Its something they can celebrate that it is part of their heritage. So, steeped in all this tradition, what did we do to celebrate my husband’s name day? Well, we went out for pizza, of course. My treat.


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4 thoughts on “Name Days

  1. From what I’ve heard in my husband’s family, the same holds true in Italy. The Saint’s Day surpasses the birthday. It is a nice tradition, but his family doesn’t follow it here in America. There’s something to be said about tradition giving us connections to the past.

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  2. Joanne, I’m not surprised that this is also a tradition in Italy. As the Greeks say “Mia fatsa, mia ratsa” and the Italians “Una faccia, una razza”. 🙂

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  3. you have finally answered the questions that I always forget to ask: where the childrens names came from. Thanks Isobel for a lovely piece of writing.

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