The sacraments of baptism, confirmation and communion are closely linked in the Greek Orthodox Church and mark the most important events in a youngster’s life. The baptism and the confirmation ceremonies, called vaftisia in Greek, were traditionally held 40 days after birth, the baby’s first outing was to church to become a christian. Nowadays children are baptized up to two years of age. The parents of a child simple witness the ritual, which is carried out by the priest and the godfather and godmother (koumparos / koumpara).
A koumbaros or a koumpara takes his or her responsibilities very seriously, because this act ties him/her spiritually to the child throughout the rest of their lives.
After the priest first blows three times in the child’s face, symbolically chasing away the evil spirits, the koumbaros/a renounces the devil and his works three times and then recites the Apostolic Creed. The child is then brought to the font and rubbed all over with oil by the koumbaros/a, who then gives the baby to the priest announcing the child’s name—usually the name of the paternal grandfather for a first boy or the paternal grandmother’s name for a first girl. (Maternal grandparents’ names are given for second boys and girls). At this point, the priest baptizes the child by completely immersing it in the font three times, invoking the names of the Trinity. Complete immersion symbolizes the burial and mystical resurrection of Christ.
Immediately following the baptismal part of this dual ceremony, the child is confirmed. The priest anoints various parts of the body by making a sign of the cross with a special ointment called chrism or myron on the forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hands, breast and feet, saying each time “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (In order to become members of the Greek Orthodox church, Christians of other faiths who have already been baptized will be confirmed.) Afterwards, the priest cuts off three tiny locks of the child’s hair as a gift to Christ and then holds the child up to the altar three times before giving it to the mother to be dressed in a completely new outfit of clothes and a gold cross provided by the godparent. The koumbaros/a then carries the child around the font three times, accompanied by the priest, before presenting the baptized and confirmed child to the parents. Soon after the baptism the child is brought to church on three successive Sundays to receive communion.
The traditional greeting on the occasion of baptism is ‘na zisi—”May s/he live!” After the ceremony, small tokens called boubounieras containing sugar-coated almonds (koufeta) are distributed and sometimes sweet pastries are offered or a more elaborate lunch or dinner is given by the child’s father for family and friends. It is not necessary to bring a gift to the baptism; this is usually done when paying a visit to the new baby right after it is brought home.
Remember, a baby is never called by its name before being baptized. Even a one- or two-year-old unbaptized child is called “o bebis” or “ee beba” (for girls). So don’t be surprised when asking someone what their baby’s name is, when they tell you that the baby will be named after the mother- or father-in-law, but don’t refer to the baby by that name.