For me, and I presume for many Greeks, the expression“christening suit” rather than “birthday suit” is the appropriate euphemism for nudity.
Unlike Christmas lunches and intimate family gatherings, our house opens on the eve of Epiphany to anyone wishing to participate in the kefi (exuberance).
After all, the protocol of a Greek Orthodox baptism requires an infant to denude in full view of the church congregation as part of his or her initiation – and rebirth – to the divine life.
To this day, the expression ‘dressed up in your birth day suit’ takes me back to when my mother would dress me up in my ‘Sunday best’ and place me in the doorway of our modest Oakleigh home to receive a small group of invited primary-school friends to celebrate my birthday. And although the occasion was thrilling, it paled when compared with a Greek name-day celebration.
My father’s name day is on the January 6, the feast of the Holy Epiphany, on account of his name, Fotios, meaning light of God, but he usually celebrates it on Saturday.
Tomorrow, Greeks throughout the world will celebrate the Holy Epiphany – Christ’s manifestation to the Magi and Christ’s baptism – by attending the Blessing of the Waters service at various piers across Australia.
Unlike Christmas lunches and intimate family gatherings, our house opens on the eve of Epiphany to anyone wishing to participate in kefi (exuberance).
Neighbours, work-mates, koumbari life-long friends, compatriots, and relatives will arrive unannounced to celebrate my father’s name day in song and dance through to daybreak.
The police officers, arriving at our door in the wee hours to ask that the music be turned down, have been coaxed in to stay for a plate of food, a few beers and a dance.
For me, name-day celebrations are also tinged with the sort of sadness that comes with loss.
Over the years, certain smiling faces have failed to appear: either because they have passed on, or are too old, frail or ill to attend.
Fortunately, my father is godfather to a score of children, ensuring a sprinkling of young souls flowing freely throughout the house to compensate for the loss.
My earliest recollection of a christening was the day Harold Holt drowned. On that day, as Holt waved good bye to his wife Zara before wading into the frigid waters of Cheviot beach, the Greek Orthodox priests immersed my screaming cousin into the warm water of the golden kolibithra (font).
News of the prime minister’s disappearance reached us as we celebrated the christening in my uncle’s and auntie’s Glen Iris back yard on a balmy December evening not too far from where the Harold Holt memorial pool now stands.
It seemed that nothing, not even the death of the Australian prime minister, could detract from the feast honouring my cousin’s rebirth to the divine life.
The year was 1967: a time of hope for those desperate souls boarding the last of the migratory ships that were pulling out of Piraeus in Greece for Port Melbourne.
So it is befitting that the Blessing of the Waters ritual, commemorating Christ’s baptism, is celebrated at the spot where many migrants caught their first glimpse of the place that marked the beginning of their new life.
I experienced my first Blessing of the Waters a couple of weeks after Holt’s disappearance. I cannot remember much other than throngs of people pushing and shoving to receive a thimble of Holy water, and my fear that the boys who had dived into the murky waters of Port Phillip Bay to retrieve the crucifix would be lost forever.
To my relief, they clambered safely on to the pier to the cheers and applaud of hundreds of Greeks – one soul clutching the crucifix close to his chest.
A number of years ago, around Epiphany, my wife and I were enjoying a typical summer’s afternoon with a couple of friends on a beach midway between Port Melbourne and Cheviot beach, when we noticed a small gathering at the far end of the shore’s edge.
Soon, fathers, mothers, children, and others headed towards the group fearing the worst – a drowning.
As we approached, we noticed a small group of men, women and children dressed in shorts, light floral dresses,short-sleeve shirts and sun hats.
With smiling faces and cameras in hand, they waded into the water with many of us in their wake. As we all stood in waist-deep water, we listened as a smiling preacher in a broad-rimmed sun hat asked a child of about 10 years of age if he wanted “Jesus to give him a new life?”
“Yes”, was the child’s response before he disappeared beneath the water under the preacher’s gentle touch.
For me, it is these moments of spiritual union that renew my faith in community. Whether they are celebrated on a beach, in church, in a back yard or on a pier is irrelevant.
What is important is for friends, strangers, believers, non-believers and the unannounced to unite at least once a year in spiritual communion.
Perhaps the Sunday of the Holy Epiphany could be this day – it is for me.