Becoming a Godfather in Greece
I recently became a godfather to a child born in Greece. It is the tradition around here to ask to be a godparent and my partner, Neil, and I had done this as soon as our ex-pat friend Jenine fell pregnant. Our godson is called Harry (Haralambos in Greek), and after his baptism I wrote a few notes on my experience of becoming a godfather for the first time:
The godparents and family met up at Harry’s house at five for a ‘pre-show’ drink and to make sure everything was ready: the favours, the new clothes to dress the baby in after the baptism, the cross, the cakes… and set off for the church just before six.
The necessary items for a baptism are: Lathopana, the sheets and towels which the baby is swaddled in after immersion in the font and lain on while dressed; the clothing, as he comes to church in one outfit and is re-dressed in another, new, outfit afterwards; Lambada, the candle that is decorated before the service and lit during it; the bobonieres, the gifts or ‘favours’ for the guests – Tina had hand painted Greek coffee cups with Harry’s name and the date, put the traditional sugared almonds inside and wrapped the bobonieres in individual net bags. Oil, soap and the cross are also needed.
A procession of people bearing gifts wound its way through the village lanes to Agios Athanasios. This church was chosen because it has an icon of Saint Haralambos (or Charalampus). Haralambos was an early Christian bishop in Magnesia, a region of Thessaly, in the diocese of the same name. His name Χαράλαμπος means ‘joyful light’ in Greek. He lived during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211), when Lucian was Proconsul of Magnesia. It is believed that at the time of his martyrdom in 202, Charalampus was 113 years old. [Thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org]
Our Harry was, of course, much younger and not bothered about all that detail. He was more concerned at what was now going on. People are milling around, and there’s also a big man in black approaching. This man has a grey beard and eyes wrinkled with laughter lines. He leans towards Harry in a calm and reassuring manner and touches his nose. Harry screams the house of God down briefly, the priest makes a joke and moves on.
Around 100 guests had gathered for the service, which started amid the ringing of bells from the church tower. The godparents – there were six in all, actually there still are – were gathered together by the priest towards the back of the church, the Narthex, where we were asked to carry out the first part of the ritual. This involved giving responses, and…
I admit to being a bit dim sometimes. I knew that the godparents were to recite the Creed and so I had obtained an advanced copy from Michaelis, who is the son of a priest. I had read it a few times, but had not been able to commit it to memory; but at least I was prepared. Or so I thought.
The priest looked at us godparents and asked, ‘Ksereis pistevo?’ Which means, ‘Do you know I believe?’
‘Well of course,’ I thought to myself as the others looked blank, ‘you’re a priest after all.’
He repeated the question, ‘Do you know I believe?’
We grown-ups looked hopefully at Lilly and Lena, two of the godparents, who are children of Greek fathers. But they seemed reluctant to join in at this point.
Then I realised that the priest was asking if we knew of the verb, ‘to believe’ and so I said ‘yes’ because I do. ‘Πιστεύω’, ‘I believe’ or ‘to believe’. Easy, ask me another.
He didn’t. He turned his book to face me so that I could recite the Creed, titled, it seemed, ‘Pistevo.’ Ah. Realisation dawned and I’d just stated that I knew the Creed of the Greek Orthodox Church, in Greek. Which was a bit ambitious of me as I probably can’t remember the C of E one in English, even though I was in a parish choir for years, was a church organist for a while and my grandfather was a vicar.
Anyway, there I am with all the eyes of the congregation on me, the priest holding the book for me, Harry getting heavy in Tina’s arms and a page full of very small Greek text in a very unfamiliar font. I lent in, squinted and started slowly. Very slowly…
Πιστεύω (I knew that word!) είς ενα Θεόν, (so far so good, but I could already sense that the Papas was keen for me to get on) Πατέρα, (pause to break the next word down into syllables…) παντοκράτορα, (a comma, good I can take a natural break…) ποιητήν…
At which point the Papas helped me out and read along with me. Well I say ‘read’. He’d been doing it for years of course and knew it off by heart. He’d also been a commentator at a racecourse, judging by the speed at which he took it. I chipped in with what words I could sight-read at speed and we got to the end more or less intact.
This floundering was followed by us spitting several times to exorcise evil, or more precisely, to denounce Satan on behalf of the child.
Then we moved to the font which had been filled with buckets of warm water. Harry was fully immersed three times, representing the three days Christ spent in his tomb, and his name was pronounced along with the Holy Trinity. He put up a brave fight at this point and didn’t really approve of being immersed naked in front of so many people, but surprisingly didn’t complain too loudly.
After this came the Chrismation, where the baby is anointed with blessed Myrrh, and then the priest cut three locks of hair. Harry was less keen on this part of the ceremony; no one had cut his hair before.
We godparents, now starting to sweat in the heat, made the sign of the cross on the baby with three fingers dipped in oil; I should point out for clarity that they were our own three fingers. We then had to wash our hands in the font water. One of us (not me, but who shall remain nameless), went straight for it and was slightly admonished by the lady holding the jug. You don't just plunge your hands in the font as if it were a sink; you wait to have the Holy Water poured over them, then graciously accept the hand towel provided. I think he was also looking for a soap dispenser and a roller-towel.
Our hands washed, the clothes blessed, it was time to dress our godson in his new clothes. Nappy included.
Now then, don’t jump to conclusions here but the last time I handled a nappy, it was a piece of towelling and I was putting it on a twenty-year-old woman. (I was working for MENCAP at the time). The thing confronting us six God ‘parents’ had tabs, padding, things that stuck together and I'm sure there was a notice saying, ‘Place over your head, do not inflate while still on the aircraft.’ And, of all six of us, only Neil had had experience of such things, having had two children. So this was his job then, and we passed on the responsibility gladly.
After he’d managed to get it on Harry upside down, inside out and back to front (but without putting it over his head or inflating it), Michelle stepped forward from the congregation and saved that particular part of the day.
With Harry dressed again, in his never-before-worn clothes and a snugly fitting nappy, the godparents, candle and baby processed around the font three times to symbolise the ‘dance of joy’. I think my joy came from knowing that I’d gotten through the really tricky stages without too much mishap. The new, gold cross that his godparents had bought for him was blessed and put around Harry’s neck. The service concluded at the high end of the church where the mother, after kissing the icons, kissed our hands. And quite right too after all that, I thought. Harry was given back to her and the priest gave us instructions: Harry must be brought to church three times over the next three weeks, by the godparents. A duty that we willingly performed, and we now also take him to his church on his name day. Having a godson baptised in your parish church opens up a whole new social world.
After the baptism, cake and drinks were served to the guests in the courtyard and the favours given out. Later still, the godparents and family went down to Haritomeni, the taverna that overlooks Symi harbour, for a meal. The Papas joined us. There was a great discussion about snakes and dogs for some reason, and he was very pleased that I was wearing my grandfather’s silver cross. I mentioned that my grandfather had been a priest. ‘Catholic?’ he asked. ‘Anglican,’ I explained. ‘That’s ok too,’ replied the Papas and we had another drink.
So now all we have to do is make sure our boy is brought up correctly, as I am sure he will be.
And I have found an online copy of ‘Pistevo,’ ΣΥΜΒΟΛΟΝ ΤΗΣ ΠΙΣΤΕΩΣ, that you can hear being read so I am going to study it, and modern nappies, in great detail, just in case I am to be a godfather again.
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