After I shut off my ringing alarm clock on Wednesday morning, my wife leaned over in our bed to kiss my cheek and say “Xronia Polla,” a Greek phrase translated literally as “many years.” It is a traditional wish that the person to whom you direct it enjoy many more years of life. She was eager to be the first to celebrate the fact that the day was my nameday.
To all my Greek friends, this is a well-known tradition. But it always occurs to me that for many of my acquaintances it is unfamiliar. Which is too bad considering it is a beautiful custom that carries deep meaning and has some pretty useful practicality to boot.
We are Greek Orthodox and our church celebrates many saints and martyrs in the Christian faith. Catholics have also adopted this tradition. For just about every day on the calendar there is a saint whose memory is commemorated. Usually there are even multiple saints that celebrate on the same day. The saint is typically celebrated on the day he or she died. Which at first blush might seem strange, but the idea is that is the day that they passed over into the bright side of life and are in communion with God. That is a day worth celebrating.
Thus, on whatever date on the calendar that saint is celebrated, the person carrying that name celebrates a nameday. In Greek this is an ονομαστική γιορτή – a name feast. While we wish people well on their nameday, we are at the same time celebrating the memory of a saint -- people whom the church has recognized as having achieved a state of exceptional holiness. Their lives have been deemed to be worthy of emulation.
By connecting the celebration with the saint whose memory is honored we turn our thoughts on that day to something more meaningful. It goes beyond celebrating a person’s birthday, which is all about the individual rather than a communal and a higher purpose. It is beyond the celebration of self.
And it has a practical aspect. If you know someone’ given name, you automatically know what day to wish them happy nameday and don’t have to remember some random calendar date associated with their birth. Everyone knows that you would wish George “Xronia Polla” on April 23 or Andrew on November 30, Chris or Christina on December 25 (Christmas!), Eleni (like my wife) on May 21, and so on.
Of course there are some exceptions. My name is Petros. For the majority of Greeks that nameday would be celebrated on June 29 when we honor the Apostles Peter and Paul. And I often get well wishes on that day. However, I am named after a different “Peter” - Agios (Saint) Petros of Argos. He was a bishop of the church in my father’s hometown of Argos, Greece. He was known as a champion of the poor, especially helping orphans and widows.
I’m blessed to have people close to me continue to celebrate these traditions and I celebrated a wonderful day. Thanks to all who wished me a happy nameday this week.
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