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Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Nameday etiquette (Ονομαστική γιορτή)

If your name is Maria, or any of the derivatives and epithets used for the Virgin Mary (which includes male forms (Maria/Marios, Panayiotis/Panayiota, Despina), you celebrate your nameday today in Greece, on the occasion of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, except if you are an unmarried Cretan woman, in which case, you celebrate your nameday on 21 November; the Virgin Mary was regarded as married when she died, but when she was presented to the temple, she was not (but this practice is not followed on the mainland).  

Namedays are more important than birthdays in Greece, especially past the childhood years. Common names (like mine) make it easier to remember when to say 'Χρόνια πολλά' to the celebrant. Friends and relatives phone or visit to wish you a happy nameday, in the same way as a birthday in western tradition. The way namedays are usually celebrated these days is over drinks and cakes, or a more formal dinner, at your house or a restaurant/cafe/bar of your choice.

If you can't make it to a celebrant's house, it won't be considered impolite, as long as you at least phone to wish them a happy nameday and explain your absence. So in actual fact, you really don't know who will be turning up to your nameday celebration, which does actually make it quite tricky to work out the quantities of food that you will need to provide. In the past, when entertaining consisted mainly of nameday celebrations and families were larger, a lot of food was always cooked for a yiorti (γιορτή, as it is known in Greece). This is not so common in modern times, especially when economising is important. Since women started working, nameday parties are also deferred to the weekend, when it is more convenient for people to party.

The most significant aspect of a nameday is to make your friends and relatives feel welcome to your home. Normally, you don't invite people to your nameday - it's their duty to remember it. But if you want to go out instead of staying at home to celebrate, or you prefer to defer the yiorti to a more convenient date, then you do tell them. Generally speaking, you know who always turns up to your house for your nameday, so you generally know who to invite, thereby avoiding a potential dilemma. The last thing you want to do is cause offence - you don't want people to feel insulted because you forgot to tell them that you won't be home.

If you are the guest, you make the effort to call people and pass on your best wishes if you can't visit them on that day. If you do visit them, you bring something along as a present: zaharoplasteio cakes are the norm, while older people were in the habit of buying presents like home ornaments (usually junky) or clothing (often the wrong size). Again, the crisis has put a stop to the habits of over-consumerism (good thing, too). Our guests are mainly rural Cretans, which means there is more emphasis on food than in urban settings. They always bring us village-grown produce: I expect to receive a bag of freshly picked walnuts.

This not-wanting-to-offend business has turned into an identity crisis in my house. Because we're renovating, our outdoor entertainment area has been reduced, and the house is too warm (and still not clean enough) for anyone to contemplate eating/entertaining indoors. My husband's Cretan instincts tell him to stay at home and cook; my 'efficiency rules' New Zealand instincts tell me not to.

Husband: They expect us to be at home on our nameday.
Wife: They don't know we're renovating and the house is a mess.

Husband: Why don't we stay home and let them come, without telling them we're renovating, so they can see we really did want them to come over?
Wife: So they can sit under the painters' walkway planks and eat dinner surrounded by crumbling stucco?

Husband: They expect that we will go to some trouble to provide them with good food, as they do for us when we visit them.
Wife: They expect that my kitchen will be clean enough to do this.

Husband: If we tell them we're renovating, they may stay away on purpose, because they felt it was like telling them not to come.
Wife: If we call them to tell them we're renovating, we could easily invite them out for a meal at the same time.

Husband: If we invite them to a restaurant, they may think we didn't want to go to any trouble to provide them with a good meal.
Wife: If we invite them to a restaurant, they will probably be pleased because these days, no one goes out for dinner because they can't afford it.

Husband: Most places will be busy on this day, and you may not be served on time.
Wife: Let's make sure we get there at a reasonable time and choose a place that isn't busy

Husband: And what if something crops us and we can't go out?
Wife: We can have souvlaki and pizza delivered to us, and we can prepare a salad.

(slight pause)

Husband: If we invite them to a taverna, we will have to decide where we are going. Any ideas?

On this point, I must admit that I'm ignorant as to what is going on in the restaurant scene in Hania. We haven't been to a taverna since last year while we were travelling in mainland Greece (in other words, we only ate out when we didn't have the facilities to cook ourselves). Since the economic crisis broke out, some places have closed down while others have opened up; it's difficult to keep abreast of all the changes because they take place so rapidly. The economic crisis doesn't necessarily mean that there is a lack of money to go out for a meal: it also has the effect of making people economise even more than they used to. At the same time, few people think about the woman's work involved in staging a nameday party. The house must be cleaned before the event, the food must be prepared and served, then there's more cleaning involved afterwards. Men's involvment in all of this, no matter how much they want to help, is purely decorative.

Wife: We can decide at the last minute. Let's keep it close by so no one spends more on petrol than what they would have spent if they were visiting us. When we make our decision, just as we're going out the door, we will phone them all (if they haven't already phoned us in advance) and tell them where we're going.

So, happy nameday to me then - and no, we still haven't decided where we're going....

UPDATE: The final choice fell on Andreas Restaurant close to Agious Apostolous beach: it is mainly frequented by tourists, and serves all the classic Greek taverna favorites, including fried calamari and chips. A good time was had by all.

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  1. Xronia Polla Kai Kala! This was fun to read and I empathize, the whole renovation thing is really hard to get around. I hope that you enjoy your day, no matter what you decide to do! :)

  2. Χρόνια πολλά Μαρία!

  3. Gosh, I loved this! Made me laugh. I understand the "dithering." My hubby and I do it, too. Going to a restaurant is not a very positive thing for us. I have said it before, "the experience usually is not worth the expense." Why don't your closest family or friends invite you to THEIR HOME for a name day celebration? Or is it just not done that way? I am going to send this post to another good friend of mine named, wait, wait, guess what? MARIA! She was born in the US but her mother was from Ecuador. She will like it. I have told her about your blog and how much I enjoy reading it. Can't wait to find out how it all "went down."

    1. DFINITELY not done! i will be breaking protocol, offending, insulting - you name it!

  4. Ooooooh, sorry! My goodness, such strict rules. I suppose my aunts, uncles and grandparents had such cultural rules also when I was growing up. They were/are all of Norwegian descent or had arrived around the turn of the century. I do remember them as seeming "stiff." It has been so long since I have seen them (most are dead, now) since my father moved us to Colorado way back when, I don't want to reveal how long ago since I am so OLD! :)
    I hope to see my OTHER friend Maria from Ecuador soon but she is just returning from San Francisco today. She went there because she gets to be a granny. I wonder if she knows it is her name day today or if it would be different because her ancestry is from a Catholic country? I will have to ask her.

  5. I should have said that all but one of my aunts has passed away. There are cousins of mine still living, of course, since they are around my age. When I said turn of the century I did not think of the fact that that would have been over ONE HUNDRED years ago. Wow. I was just looking on the Ellis Island website for my grandfather who came from Norway in about 1915 or so. Haven't found him yet. Also looking for the great great grandparents of my son, who came from Italy. The spelling of surnames is a problem. It seems that lots of names were changed for one reason or another when the passenger came through Ellis Island. Sorry, I am gong on and on.

    1. the names being changed is a big problem for greeks trying to trace relatives - our names were transliterated and if someone didnt understand what was being said, almost anything went down on paper!