12 February 2006

A Nameday or a Coffin on Wheels

Every year on January 27th I celebrate my nameday. While namedays are an integral part of Christian belief, it seems that in this day and age Slavs, both Orthodox and Catholic, are most familiar with this tradition. In contrast, many local Christians, regardless of their background, react with a polite clueless smile and a blank stare when asked. In Russian specifically, this celebration is customarily called an "angel's day", referring to a “guardian angel”, of course, although defined properly, it is a "saint's day" instead.

Who gets to have a nameday?

As long as one's given name possesses certain hagiographic relevance, one is bound to qualify. Of course, several Christian names are rather common and are shared by more than one saint - Catherine, for example. In turn, such nominal popularity translates into numerous calendar days dedicated to various saint Catherines. In this case, her mere mortal namesake must choose the closest date following her birthday as her official nameday.

In the olden days, when masculinity was not penalized, when women actually had concern for fulfilling their biological roles, and when honor had a higher price tag than life, namedays held greater value than the most selfish holiday of all – a birthday. Recently I unintentionally came across a material testament to this convention, when I was looking through my extremely disorganized photographic collection - a collection of proofs, rather than fewer professional prints I’ve produced, to be precise, stored in often-mislabeled envelopes. This was a usual search for certain live shots from a metal festival I had attended a couple of years ago. Instead, the first plastic container I checked included several pre-Revolutionary family photographs - the only ones my mother allowed me to grab from home, because they were duplicates.

"You'll get the rest when I die", she explained.

She has always been rather morbid.

I also came across a clear plastic sleeve used to store a single fragile sheet of paper yellowed with age. It was folded in half, because it was too large for the sleeve, and because I was too disrespectful to find the time to purchase something more suitable. I noticed the elaborate inked imperial emblem glued to the back of the sheet – Russia’s two-headed eagle with various heraldic symbols drawn inside its wings. It only took a century to abolish it and to reintroduce it, to strip it of its coats of arms and to cynically and at the same time affectionately call it “the chicken”. The “chicken’s” appearance is just as outdated as the more elaborate alphabet used inside the page. We simplified that too.

Dead letters revealed the document’s content: this was a hand-written telegram receipt - that much I remembered - dated 10:45 am of July 25th, 1907. Wide, easily legible despite the outdated alphabet, hundred-year old pencil (!) strokes revealed the occasion - my great-grandfather's wedding felicitations mailed by his brother. He also sent good wishes to an undisclosed female for the occasion of her angel's day.

I quickly searched the online Eastern Orthodox nameday database to determine which family member the wishes were meant for. There was only one suitable candidate - Olympiada, my great-great-grandmother. She was a quintessential citizen of the Great Russian Empire - a Belorussian woman who lived in Georgia. She had piercing blue eyes, big hair, and wore frilly dresses. Her nameday was on August 7th.

Growing up, her grandson - my gradfather too upheld our ancestral spirit by emphasizing the continued importance of a nameday.

"Your great-grandmother Nadia – the one who attended Sorbonne – do you know where that is, Ninochka? In Paris!"

My mother was a fairly late second child, so my grandfather seemed even older than a regular grandfather would. His countless stories about an erased culture that a normal Soviet child had little comprehension of outside the context of Marxist class struggle made it seem even more so. Of course, at this age, children consider thirty-year olds to be quite elderly.

"Were you aware of the fact that Sorbonne was one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Europe, Ninochka? Even more prestigious for a woman and a Russian citizen. Before the Revolution, naturally."

"She was beautiful and spoke flawless French, you know. Taught it too. And in her old age she walked around with a cane with the grace of a queen."

I was then told that this almost-royal great-grandmother of mine entertained her guests in a more grandiose manner than her birthday celebrations. I did not mind the continued focus on this concept: what little girl would complain about one additional reason to receive regularly scheduled gifts and loads of attention?

Nearly two decades later and an ocean away, only close relatives and friends convey their nameday wishes to me and perhaps offer a present or two. Someday I might attempt to elevate this date's status in my life, but this year I simply decided to visit the church and greet Saint Nina, the Enlightener of Georgia and my personal intercessor. When I first began attending, I was pleasantly surprised to find her taking up a prominent position on the south wall, next to a number of other female saints and in the close vicinity of our last czar - recently canonized Nicholas II.

Clad in lengthy garments of a standard female saint in fresco format, she carries the living grapevine cross with which she singlehandedly christianized the ancient land of Georgia - Sakartvelo, around the time of Rome's official acceptance of Christianity; her peaceful, even stoic face gazes far ahead and looks nothing like me. In contrast to many saints, Nina did not die a dreadful tortured death of a martyr, but instead joined the One whose teachings she earnestly propagated in her old age, after a life full of good news and good deeds.

Not like me at all.

Nonetheless, I decided to visit her and to let her know that she still speaks for Georgians around the world, even if not full-blooded, even if mostly Russian, like me. She and I not only share our culture and our name, but so did my grandfather’s wife – grandmother Nina – a woman I had never met. Beautiful like her mother Nadia, she too spoke and taught the language of aristocracy, but was born too late to attend distinguished European schools. And there was one other Nina in our family's recent history - Olympiada’s second daughter, who evidently died in early childhood, as my unfinished genealogical tree indicates.

My good intentions did not crystallize until two weeks later. I blamed my busy, awkward work schedule, drastically fluctuating weather patterns, and everything in between. "At least I made it at all". I chose a quiet Sunday evening, knowing the church would not be full of nosey fanatics, overheated by their massive numbers and religious zeal. I chose an ankle-length skirt and properly covered my hair, thereby reluctantly equating myself to the plethora of Muslim females in the downtown Toronto as well as to Saint Nina herself. I checked my wallet for change to buy candles. I walked in.

I stormed out ten minutes later.

Not even.

There was a coffin in the very middle of the church, and there was a dead man inside it! Not that coffins serve many other purposes, excluding the misguided vampire subculture, whose members enjoy using them as bedding (Sleep Country may discover an entirely new market opportunity here!), but I certainly did not expect to find one during a public service. And not on the night I planned to pay homage to my famed guardian.

To make matters worse, this coffin was on wheels! My astonishment quickly turned into rather inappropriately timed and uncontrollable humor, as I immediately recalled childhood jokes about coffins on wheels. I then blasphemously imagined this coffin rolling through the church like a bumper car. By itself. I also developed an unsettling feeling that the inhabitant of the coffin-on-wheels, which was apparently fashioned out of expensive red wood, will rise any second now and join the evening mass. Like Lazarus or a generic zombie. Do clerical living dead abound in horror film culture?

I should ask the vampires.

This one wore what looked like a bishop’s crown and clutched a small bible and a large cross – signs of his ministry - in each hand. His face was concealed by a cloth, which was periodically removed by the parish members, who evidently arrived to pay their tribute by kissing his forehead and his hand. Did they know him personally, or was this another sign of their fanatic devotion, which usually includes slobbering all over every icon in sight, expensive candles, high intensity workouts consisting of the sign of the cross and ground-level bows on repeat, and last but not least – actively correcting every individual in their path who allegedly fails to follow the ritual impeccably.

“We are not that different”, - I tried to convince myself. “I am here to light a candle for a two-dimensional depiction of my guardian saint, while they kiss the old dead man’s hands as if they were relics, and relics belong to saints.”

Most relics of interest are also several hundred years old. So how long has this deceased been inside the church? One day? Two? Three?!

Despite the absence of electric lighting, I stood close enough to notice how rigid and frozen the man’s hands appeared as he grasped his insignia.

I then recalled my last year’s visit to the touring Body Worlds II exhibition of the works created by German “plastinator” Gunter von Hagens. It was not the artfully dismembered corpses, including a female with a five-month old fetus inside her eviscerated womb, or the ability to see certain specimen’s real faces that disturbed me. It was their hands. Waxy complexion with shrunken skin to reveal long, yellowish, chipped fingernails. Precisely like the lifeless cleric’s hands. The hands that zealous churchgoers were currently slobbering over - transferring living saliva drops to the tiny dead gray hairs protruding from the cleric’s fingers and in turn ingesting dead man’s arid epithelials mixed with previously deposited fanatical spit.

Perhaps those jokes about coffins-on-wheels were not jokes? Perhaps they were stories meant to scare children!

Flickering candlelight’s mystical accents on the gold-plated iconostasis and the otherwordly liturgical songs I usually live for now seemed ominous and a suitable counterpart to this ritual of death. Suddenly, the entire scene turned into a vision of Bosch’s Ghent version of Christ Carrying the Cross: an endless horde of mad bulging eyes, oily gangrenous flesh, greasy hair, putrid teeth, with no room left to breathe.

I could not breathe either. I dashed toward the exist near the south wall, receiving mob’s disapproval along the way despite my clear effort to tippy toe, made an even quicker apologetically distorted sign of the cross as my eyes met Saint Nina, and hopped down the stairs out into the cold winter night.

Saint Nina did not seem to mind my escape. Her expression even appeared indifferent, but she was probably just preoccupied with overseeing the cleric’s lengthy entrance into the next world.

Next time I will visit her on an “off” day.


Anonymous said...

I hope this year I will actually get something for my 'name-day'.

FlightOfNonExistentTime said...

Well hello there Nina
for a highly educated female you are easily scared by old-wives tales
the worship of the dead is useless
as for name days, I have long ago stopped that silly practice, which is only still followed as a an occasion to get drunk...same goes for birthdays
I have never thought of You as church-going person, my dear Flower of the Steppes I wish you the best with your spiritual enlightment