When I was growing up a Presbyterian in Minnesota, I thought that the ceremony of baptism consisted of a short period after church when the minister said a few words over the baby and splashed some water on its head.
That was long before I met a Greek-American, married him, and produced three children who all enjoyed a real Greek baptism with a cast of thousands and a long church service which included the priest completely submerging the baby three times in the baptismal fount, and also cutting three locks of hair and anointing the child with holy oil among other colorful rituals.
It was a learning experience. At each of the first two baptisms—both held in St. Spyridon church in Worcester, MA., I wore a floor-length gown (as did the guests) and sat in the front pew to help with the undressing and re-dressing of the screaming child. (The third baptism took place in Greece and was slightly more low-key, but a caterer and a tent were involved.)
Inevitably, in the church, I would worry, like every Greek mother, that someone would drop the screaming, slippery baby. (In the olden days, in Greek villages, the mother didn’t even get to go to the baptism. The godparent would bring the child to her afterward at home and inform her what its name was.)
In each baptism in St. Spyridon, as soon as I unconsciously and nervously crossed my legs, my aged father-in-law would stand up, stalk across the front of the church and scold me: “Never cross your legs in church.” Not that I was showing as much as an inch of ankle, mind you. I would uncross, then forget and do it again.
Proud father Nick Gage at left and godfather Steve Economou at right, dance at Eleni's baptism 36 years ago.
The baptisms of our babies were followed by a major party, major cake, lots of Greek food and wine and a live orchestra including the all-important clarinet player whose skills inspired the dancers into athletic feats that including writhing on the floor while appreciative on-lookers threw money.
My father-in-law would lead the Greek line dances while balancing a glass of Coca Cola on his head. He never dropped it.
Well, the baptism last Sunday of our first grandchild, ten-month-old Amalía, at the same St. Spyridon Cathedral where her mother was baptized 36 years ago, was less over-the-top, but it was a total delight to the 131 guests, from small children to aged great aunts, some of whom threw aside canes and disabilities to demonstrate their dancing skills.
Proud grandfather Nick Gage, now with a white beard, still is a Greek dancing star.
Amalía’s godmother Areti Vraka, came from Corfu, Greece and her godfather, José Oyanguren, came from Managua, Nicaragua. They had both served as attendants when Amalia’s parents were married in Corfu two years earlier, on 10/10/10.
Areti at left dresses Amalia. Jose at right reads from St. Paul at the baptism.
Baby Amalía entered the church wearing an antique lace christening gown brought by her Nicaragua grandmother, Abuela Carmen Oyanguren. It was originally made for Carmen’s father in Bruges, Belgium some 115 years ago.
It was the inspiration of Amalía’s mommy, our daughter Eleni, to design an invitation featuring the baby dressed in the traditional “Amalia” costume which Greek girls put on for festive and patriotic occasions. As Eleni explained in the invitation: “Amalía is…the name of the first queen of modern Greece. ..the name of the traditional Greek costume shown here… the name of the Queen of our hearts.”
The colors of the Amalia costume—pale blue and deep red—became the color scheme for the baptism and the flower arrangements on the tables. Amalia’s photo from the invitation was reproduced on the 24 cupcakes surrounding the baptism cake, which resembled the white lace christening gown.
The same colors were echoed in the ribbons on the religious “witness pins” worn by everyone who attended the church, and in the blue Murano glass crosses attached to the traditional “boubounieres” –the candy-almond-filled favors on the tables. On every table was an "Amalía doll"--Every child got one.
Last Sunday the dresses were no longer floor-length gowns and the live orchestra was replaced by a DJ, but he pulled out old favorite Greek songs and dances as well as Spanish-language standards for the Nicaraguan contingent. Amalia’s Daddy, Emilio, danced first with his daughter and then with his wife.
And before the party was over, ten-month-old Amalia, no doubt on a sugar high caused by my feeding her an entire cupcake, managed to dance to the Greek music on her own two feet, just as her mother had danced at her own baptism 36 years before.
(For a moving and insightful explanation of the meaning of the baptism rituals, check out the post of Amalía’s mommy, author Eleni Baltodano Gage, on her blog "The Liminal Stage": “The Circle Dance: The Sacred and the Mundane.”)