‘I want to see them back’: Name Day celebrations through the eyes of a young Greek Australian
By Anastasia Fokianos*
The smell of charcoal and meat swells through the house and down the street, acting as a beacon that guides family and friends to the doorstep.
The door remains open as they walk through plates full of food and drink, and gather around the barbecue to see if they could cut a piece of tender lamb.
Yiayia cooked enough food to feel suburban, with homemade dishes that have been passed down from generation to generation spanning the dining table.
The cousins run around the streets for hours and play, and either come back after the sun goes down or hear them shouting names.
Deep in our memory bank, most of us can think of a time when that typical Greek scene took place during the Name Day celebration.
Celebrating Greek Name Days is an Orthodox tradition observed throughout Greece. Every year the Greeks celebrate the feast day of the Christian saint, holy person or martyr after whom they bear their name.
The patronal feasts are considered major feasts in Greece. People flock to villages and celebrate in local churches which host “panigiria” (Greek feasts) with live traditional music, food and drink.
The Greeks also phone the person whose name day is being celebrated, usually wishing them “many years of life” or “Hronia Polla”.
Greek migrants brought their traditions with them to Australia, alongside their suitcases. This included Easter traditions and feast days.
It was very common for the person celebrating the feast of his name to welcome his family and friends to his home, usually by having a barbecue. Usually, people also gathered for picnics, which turned into full-day outings. These new traditions have become a norm in the Greek community.
I ask my father how the celebration of Greek Name Days has changed his perspective as a first-generation Greek Australian who grew up in a migrant household.
“Before, people had more respect for Name Day and celebrated it wholeheartedly, but nowadays people are ‘busy’ and much more reserved,” he says.
The celebration of name days has become less common over the decades. Greeks tend to focus on celebrating their birthday, as they do in most Western countries, putting name day aside.
It has also become less common to visit people’s homes uninvited or call out as a courtesy.
‘Times are not like before’:
At the end of May, people named after Saints Konstantinos and Eleni celebrated their name day.
My extended family hosted the celebration at their home in Melbourne. It was laid back and people came throughout the day for drinks and meze to celebrate the person’s name day.
It was the first time I had attended such a party since I was little.
I was hit with waves of joy, fulfillment and longing, which brought back memories of past events that had been lost over the years.
The house was typical of the ethnic style of the 80s, draped in doilies and floral carpets. Framed photos covered the walls and shelves, showing grandchildren and children.
You could hear the clink of glasses taken from the cabinet which was rarely used. My cousin asked if we were expecting a visit from the Queen when the cupboard opened and revealed the shiny brassware and fine china that no one knew existed.
It brought back the nostalgic feeling of being at my yiayia and pappous’ house in Sydney, even though they were 600 miles away.
Getting together with family, sharing food, making up for lost time. It made me realize that times are not like before.
Instead, birthdays have become more extravagant, resulting in little attention left on feast days.
Simpler times saw birthdays celebrated with family at home or in a park. Homemade food would be shared along with enough drinks to meet the needs of a village. The birthday cake would usually be a continental vanilla cake with the person’s name written on top with colored gel.
I would like to see the return of the name day tradition.
Events like these bring so much joy, and my generation and generations to come should be able to feel the same sense of excitement that appointed days bring.
But nothing happens without a little effort. What can we do?
Stroll to the local Greek grocery store and buy a calendar, or have reminders for name days on our phones.
Wish someone “Hronia Polla” or occasionally host friends and family to keep this tradition alive within the Greek-Australian community.
It’s important to remember our Greek culture and the little things can make a big difference!
*Anastasia Fokianos is a senior student at Alphington Grammar School in Melbourne and interned with The Greek Herald this week.