Names are important in Greece, and the process of selecting a name follows rather strict conventions. Greek parents do not pick a name because they like the sound of it. It is unusual even to name a child after a parent.
The eldest son is generally named after the paternal grandfather, and the eldest daughter is given the name of her paternal grandmother. Names are usually of religious origin, because 98% of Greeks are Orthodox Christians. Each island or locale in Greece has a patron saint, and people living in that area are often named for that saint. Sometimes families will use the names of ancient Olympian gods (like Athena or Apollo).
Nearly every day of the year is dedicated to a Christian saint or martyr. For example, January 7 is the festival day of Saint John the Baptist, and it is the nameday for all Greek people named Yannis (Ioannis – male) or Yanna (Ioanna – female). With this system, there aren’t that many names to go around. About 750 prime names and 2085 derivatives have official namedays according to Orthodox tradition.
In Greece, the nameday is much more important than a person’s birthday. That’s why we were surprised and delighted when Pavlos, our landlord, invited us to his nameday celebration. Pavlos is named for Saint Paul, whose festival day is June 29. According to tradition, he arose early in the morning and went to the small church of Ayios Pavlos in the village to help prepare for the saint’s festival. He was also responsible for ringing the church bell for morning services.
We tried to think of an appropriate gift to bring to the party that evening. We knew that Pavlos had a vineyard near Iralkio. In fact, he had already given us a bottle of his wine. So we decided to bring several bottles of good Cretan wine to the party.
That evening we waited with great anticipation. Greeks tend to dine at around 11:00 PM – much later than we usually eat – so we were quite hungry when the mouth-watering aroma of barbecue cooking drifted through our balcony door. We walked down to the terrace with our gifts and found Pavlos tending his grill while his wife, Eva, coordinated a group of women setting a long table outside their apartment.
When the party was ready to begin, family and friends gathered around a table laden with enough food to feed four times as many people. In Greek tradition, it is impolite to refuse what is offered, so we took only small portions whatever dish was passed to us. However, after nearly two hours of talking and eating, and eating and talking, we were nearly ready to explode.
Fortunately, the celebration turned towards conversation and stories to entertain Pavlos. It was wonderful to be included among the friends of Pavlos, and to share stories with everyone.