In May 2013, I participated in a study abroad trip to Greece. We stayed in Glyfada, a coastal suburb of Athens at the Emmantina Hotel, arriving in time to put our things down in our rooms before walking to an arranged traditional Greek dinner at a local restaurant. We ate and drank our fill of moussaka and retsina. As we left the restaurant, our group broke apart into ones, twos and threes, each slipping away into the crepuscule. I wove my way down Possidonos Avenue through a throng of people clustered around the Greek Orthodox church of St. Constantine and Helen. They were celebrating the holy name day of Constantine and Helen (Konstantinos and Elenis).
Similar to other church calendars, each day of the Orthodox Church calendar has been dedicated to a saint. If you have been named after a particular saint, it is traditional for you to celebrate your “name day,” our tour guide told us, by throwing a lavish party with lots of food and plenty of drink for your friends on your name day. It can be expensive, but as everyone eventually has to do the same, it all evens out in the end.
The golden beehive-shaped cathedral glowed in the darkness, the stain glass windows emitting the light from within into the violet-tinged darkness. Crowds surrounded the church, entering and exiting, like so many bees bringing nectar to the hive and then leaving again in search of the next pollen-laden flower. An old beggar woman, cloaked in black, sat on the ground, asking passersby to purchase her thin, yellow taper candles. Booths had been set up in the church square with cassocked priests selling beaded jewelry. A nearby bazaar added to the ceaseless thrum of noise.
As I stood by the church, trying to absorb all the commotion into my brain fogged by jet lag and wine, fireworks began exploding a crackling shower of gold, red, blue and green. Smoke filled the air with a metallic-scented fog. I began to feel as if someone had given me a hard shove down a rabbit hole.
Once the fireworks ended, I joined a group going into the church, feeling uncertain, as if I were trespassing. I half-expected someone to point at me, yelling, “Intruder!” But, really, very few noticed my existence, caught up in their own experiences.
Inside was a swarm of close pressed bodies, rhythmically circling around the floor. Some people were seated but I was so caught up in the rapid flow, I barely noticed them, aware just enough to avoid trodding on their feet. The scents of dust, sweat, incense and candles filled the stifling, smoky air. Bells tolled, voices hummed and chanted, filling my ears with an unintelligible buzz. The Byzantine frescos and mosaics covered every surface—ceilings, walls, floor—an explosion of color. Lapis, gold, scarlet, ochre. The Saints. Mary. Jesus, the Pantokrator, looked down from his celestial dome.
Outside again, in the cool breezy night, spots of light flashed before my eyes. I closed my eyes to steady myself, and as I did so, the hum of voices and bells faded away until there was only the sound of my beating heart as it thumped out little explosions of elation, elevation, exaltation.