In Greece, everyone celebrates the "Name Day" of the saint that bears the same name. This usually has no relation to a person's actual birthday except by coincidence.
Greek Name Day and Naming Conventions in Greece
Naming conventions in Greece are still followed quite strictly, with the result that certain names are used for many individuals in a generation. In each generation, the eldest grandson in each family will be named for the grandfather, and the eldest granddaughter will be named for the grandmother. If someone had three children, and they all produce a male grandchild, all three of those cousins will have the same name. To top it all off, all those with the same first name will celebrate the same saint's Name Day.
There is a scene in the comedy "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" which illustrates this practice - clueless spouse-to-be Ian is introduced to a whole slew of "Nicks", including a female Niki. Since they are all cousins, this makes perfect if confusing sense to Greek families.
Greek Names Reflect a Long History
Because of the naming rules, in some cases the same names have been used in an unbroken line for hundreds of years in a single family, if not longer. Often, these names came into use because of a local association with a saint. For example, on the south coast of Crete, where St. Paul is said to have been shipwrecked nearly two thousand years ago, Pavlos is an extremely common name even among unrelated families. But in the rest of Greece, the name Paul is not often encountered.
By the way, if you encounter someone named for an Olympian god or goddess - rather than for a conveniently-named saint of the same name - it can mean that family is considered to be less devout than those that stick strictly to church-sanctioned names and avoid the use of names like Apollo or Aphrodite. 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.
When there are several saints of the same name, the "biggest" saint will usually be the one chosen to celebrate. But this has local variations. While most Dionysises would celebrate St. Dionysus the Areopagite's feast on October 3rd, those on Zakynthos would be more likely to celebrate St. Dionysus of Zakynthos' feast day on December 17th.
But some feast days have no apparent relation to a saint. One of these, Asterios, is celebrated on Symi in August 7th. This may preserve an extremely ancient name of an early, pre-Minoan King of Crete, Asterion. Or it may refer to an old title of Zeus, "The Starry One".
The celebration of Greek Name Days includes a party. In past times, this was open to literally anyone passing on the street, but most parties these days are by invitation. Obviously, people of the same name will usually know where all the celebrations are. Small gifts are exchanged.
Since the Saint is also having a celebration, everyone will visit any local church named for that same saint, make an offering, and light a candle. The bigger churches will put on the larger festivals, often with free food and drink, but even the smallest of chapels will commemorate their saint's special day in some way. Many of the little chapels you see in the fields or in remote locations will only be open once a year on the day of their saint. And if the village itself is named for the saint, travelers can count on a terrific party on that day.
If you are trying to include these celebrations in your travels, remember that many of them will be observed on the eve of the feast, rather than on the day itself. Confirm locally before you make your plans.
But does it really mean everyone gets two birthdays to celebrate? Not quite. While Greek-Americans may celebrate the birthday as well, many traditional Greeks stick to observing the Name Day, and the actual birthday passes without as much notice, though this is changing in the younger generations.
Book your Own Day Trips Around Athens
Book your Own Short Trips Around Greece