Birthday, Name Day, & Slava
Ancient (pre-Christian) and modern Greeks often name their children after one of their grandparents. Ancient Slavs left children unnamed or substituted a nickname like Niemoj, “not mine” to deflect evil spirits until the child was old enough (7-10 years) to be likely to survive.
Christianity developed a calendar filled with celeb-rations of saints’ deeds, until almost every day was associated with a saint. It then encouraged people to name their children after saints early in life, and celebrate their children’s lives on the saint’s day instead of the ‘pagan’ birthday.
In some countries, name days are as important as, and much more publicly celebrated than, birthdays. For instance, anyone named John, (English), Ivan, Jan, Jovan, Honza, Janez (Slavic), Ioannis, Yannis (Greek), or Ioan (Romanian), will celebrate their day on St John’s Day, January 7.
Each country’s calendar contains a list of name days. Casual acquaintances may not know a person’s birthday, but anyone can look up their name day, and send greetings or a little gift. The celebrant usually hosts an open house and all are welcome to drop in.
In some cultures pagan names continued to survive, though often someone with that name eventually became a saint or martyr. If not, a person could still choose to celebrate on All-Saints’ Day.
In Serbia, the saints’ day celebration is taken a step further. Most ancient Slavic cultures were organized by family: several generations living together under one roof managed by an elected patriarch (usually the senior male). Each family had a patron protective deity to which they made offerings and appealed to for help.
Saint Sava (d. 1236) is credited with converting Serbia to Christianity, and with exchanging family pagan deities for patron saints. Thus in Serbia the Slava is a celebration of the family name.
Women are allowed days off work to prepare huge amounts of food. On the day of the Slava, a local priest will visit the home and conduct a small service, and a sumptuous meal is provided for invited guests, featuring special recipes.