Baptisms on Symi
A beginner’s guide to attending a Symi Baptism
A couple of years ago I was formally invited to a baptism on the island of Symi, where I now live. Later I thought a quick guide to how it all works might be in order.
First though, here is some background to Greek Orthodox baptisms that may be of interest to you.
Baptising a child in the Christian Orthodox Church is a very important event for the family. There are many rites involved in the actual ceremony which makes the service a complicated one; many of these rites date back to the earliest days of Christianity and the whole things starts with an exorcism. The priest will breathe three times over the baby and make the sign of the Cross. One of the godparents (the Nuna and Nuno), or sometimes all of them, renounces Satan on behalf of the child, then spits to the west to show how much he/she is adverse to the devil. He/she then turns to the east to accept Christ and recites ‘the profession of faith’.
The priest touches the baptismal water with the flat of his hand, says prayers over it, breathes on it and thus consecrates it. Next the baby is anointed with oil and the ceremony proper starts.
It may shock some who are not used to this spectacle but the, by now naked, baby is immersed completely into the font/water three times (I have seen the priest simply splash the baby all over instead, usually after a few failed attempts to get the screaming and kicking child into the water. At Neil’s Nanou event, they had to check the temperature of the water constantly as the font was outside and it was a baking August afternoon). Meanwhile the priest, who is holding the oiled baby very carefully, recites the formula ‘The servant of God (name) is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
The start of the child’s Christian life is symbolized by the lighting of a white candle (these decorated candles are called Lambades), the child is re-clothed in a new, unused, often white set of clothes, different from the ones it came to the church in, and is carried around the font three times by the priest and godparents.
The child is also anointed or ‘sealed’ with Holy Myrrh in the ceremony of Chrismation as the priest marks it with the sign of the cross on its forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears. I have also seen the godparents anoint the child; the men paying attention to, if it’s a boy, his future virility if you see what I mean. A few strands of the baby’s hair are cut (this should be the first time the child’s hair has been cut since birth), in a ceremonial tonsure. There is then a reading from the Gospel, the child is blessed at the door of the church and the ceremony is over.
There then follows sweets, cakes, the giving of favours among the congregation, usually outside in the courtyard of the church, and it is traditional for the family to have a dinner together that night with the newly baptised baby and its godparents.
That’s a simple rundown. Of course, older people can also be baptised too, though I’m pretty sure they are not stripped naked, fully immersed and then re-dressed by their godparents.
And now to my guide to the baptism process, more fully. Here it is: at least here it is according to my experience on Symi over the last seven years.
Your invitation may or may not arrive in solid form. You could receive an envelope with a printed card inviting you to the ceremony and the party afterwards, or to just one or the other. Or, as in one case, you could have someone shout up in Greek at your balcony from the street below: ‘What are you doing tomorrow mate? We’re having a baptism if you want to come.’
Either form of invitation is acceptable in the village it seems, however an envelope is slightly more rewarding and often helps you discover the sex of the child. If it’s a pink envelope, then the chances are it will be a girl (see, it’s not difficult). Inside, there will be the formal invite – in Greek of course, so get studying – and one I received included an extra card, like an ‘access all areas’ pass that invited me to the buffet in the church courtyard afterwards (see ‘buffet’ below).
What to take?
You may wish to buy the child a baptism gift; most people do. This is where you definitely need to know the gender so that you can buy something appropriate. For the baptism on which this ramble is based, I settled for a soft, all-purpose, ball. Well actually, someone else bought it for me but that’s another story. Put the gift in (pink in this case) bag, label it in Greek and English so they will know who it came from and it’s time to get dressed.
What to wear?
Thanks to a recent cull in the wardrobe, I was left with one pair of shorts and two pairs of trousers that almost fitted. As the baptism was an evening event, I thought suit, trousers and a white shirt would cover it. But due to the phenomenon of trousers that shrink on their own and the fact that it was a hot evening in August, I went for the shorts and white shirt.
That was fine – you can dress informally if you wish; no one will complain. But if you really want to show off, then put on your best high heels, your flashy frock and jewellery, have your hair done and slap on the slap, accessorise with matching gift bag in suitably gender-specific colour and away you go… I am talking to the ladies here of course, and possibly some of you more adventurous men.
Arrive at the church early enough to get a good seat but late enough to be seen arriving. Hand over your gift (to the mother) so that those who are there ahead of you will note that you were officially invited and brought a gift, and will pass on the gossip to those who come later. Late arrivals will see that you were there early as you are sitting in the best seat. Meet and greet everyone you know, loudly, and have a good chinwag for half an hour while you wait for something to happen.
Hearing the service:
Eventually the service will start. In summer, baptisms are often held outside. You can be grateful for this because it is less sweaty and crowded out in the courtyard, and you can move around. Those who do can smoke, and everything is very relaxed. However, when you are in a courtyard beside the main road with two hundred guests who are still meeting, greeting, chatting and complimenting each other on their clothes, sitting under eight trees (each one containing ten cicadas) at dusk, don’t expect to hear what the priest is saying.
Don’t think British.
For those readers who are British, or who have calm and quiet Christenings ‘back home’, there’s none of this gently dripping water over the baby’s head business going on here. Oh no, you are stripped off, covered in oil, dunked into the font fully naked three times, passed around the godparents (and there can be many), dressed, passed around some more, paraded around the grounds, and all this with chanting and talking going on, a photographer flashing in your face (I wish he wouldn’t do that), and people holding you, taking your clothes off, putting them on again… And I’m only a guest, just image what the baby feels like.
Only joking. But it is a far more traumatic ceremony for some people to view than you get in the UK, and I have actually seen non-Greek people pale and depart a baptism muttering under their breath and tutting. To which I say, get over it.
So, service concluded (the cicadas seem to know this as they stop their racket around now), and it’s on to the party and gift giving. As a guest, you are now plied with a plate of food, a drink and have plenty of time to mingle while eating cold cheese pies, cold spinach pies, a dry bun and a biscuit, while holding a floppy paper plate in one hand and a drink in the other. Tip: practise this at home first so as to avoid spoiling your new outfit and looking like an incompetent buffoon.
On your departure (or after if you slip away early and embarrassed, covered in pastry and sweet red wine), you will receive a favour. Not a ‘while you’re at the shops will you get me a pint of milk’ favour, but a parting gift that you can keep. Sometimes this is accompanied by a bag of sugared almonds in a little net. In the past I have also received a bicycle – not a real one, but one that you stick in the flower tubs so the wheels go round in the wind, and I’ve known people to be given money boxes and other little miniature goodies. Last week’s event came with a miniature brass scale with a clock in it.
There you are – a quick rundown of the baptism event as I see it.
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