We often hear about how Greeks are hospitable. What is it about Greeks and their obsession with hospitality? The answer would be one word: kerasma.
Today is my name day. Basically, most people in Greece are named after a saint and each saint is celebrated on a specific day. Therefore if you have that name you celebrate that day. So for example today is Saint Constantine’s and Helen’s, and basically anybody who has the name Helen, Eleni, Elena, Constantine, Kostas, Gus etc etc. celebrates today. Yes, that list is pretty long. In Greece name days are more important than birthdays, because everybody knows that it is your name day, so your friends have no excuse of forgetting. Plus you are not celebrating being a year older, but just celebrating your name, which really removes any worries of getting older that you may have. No candles or philosophical thoughts of what to do with your life, just celebrating…your name. Yes, a name day is definitely more fun than a birthday in my humble opinion.
Whether you are religious or not, you are expected to wish your friends who have the specific name on that day. The problem is that certain names are pretty common, so on some days you end up calling 20 + people to wish them happy name day. Or nowadays you can just use facebook and just tag everybody, I guess that’s acceptable for some people. Actually there is even a facebook app that reminds people of Greek name days in case you are wondering.
When someone celebrates here in Greece they are expected to offer a sweet to everybody and anybody who wishes them a happy name day. So you’ll see people bringing boxes of sweets to the office and setting them on their desk while all their coworkers drop by and wish them well. At schools, kids bring sweets as well, which is a nightmare sometimes, as my son comes home having eaten 5 or so sweets. Luckily these sweets, called kerasmata are usually pretty small, so the damage calorically is somewhat small too.
Years ago, when you had your name day, people just dropped by (without calling) to wish you a happy name day and of course you were expected to offer a drink, some mezedes and a sweet. My mother told me that in the smaller towns you left your front door halfway open to signify that you accepted guests for your name day, or closed if you were not celebrating. More affluent people even announced their name day in the local newspaper. My grandmother and grandfather would put ads in the paper that would say for example: Eleni (my grandma) is celebrating her name day today and accepting guests. But even if you did not have much money you still would offer something to a guest if they dropped by.
And that brings me to another practice that Greeks have: they cannot allow someone to come in their home, office, store etc. without offering their guest something to drink accompanied by a little sweet. Even if you are not celebrating anything.
I remember at first, going to job interviews here in Greece and the first thing they would ask me is, if I would like a coffee, a juice, a soft drink? Coffee? I thought they would ask for my resume. Which makes you wonder: am I here for a job interview or for a pleasant cup of coffee? I often go by my neighbors, just to ask something quickly and they always have to offer a sweet to me and my kids even if I’m there just for a minute. It is considered rude and cheap to not offer a guest something to drink along with something to eat. You don’t even really have to like them. For Greeks what you offer in your home is a reflection of who you are.
A typical kerasma may be a glass of water with a small glass of a liquor and a spoon sweet. Or you may offer wine (or other alcohol) with some savory tidbits (wine is never served alone). And you never asked your guests if they want something, you bring it to them automatically once they sit down. As my grandmother used to say: “You only ask the sick if they want something”.
But even if you were poor you still offer something to a guest. Maybe a few nuts, some bread with a bit of wine, but something nevertheless. My mother remembers going to some sort of farm owned by relatives when she was little, and the people didn’t have anything to offer, so they offered them each a spoon of honey.
But why is it such a big deal? For Greeks someone who does not offer anything to their guests is looked down upon. They are considered antisocial, uncivilized and generally not respected. That’s pretty harsh, I know, but somehow it makes sense…