The most commonly used Greek term for grandmother is yia-yia, sometimes rendered as ya-ya. These may also be spelled as separate words: yia yia and ya ya — or without the hyphen — yiayia and yaya.
These are, of course, phonetic or Americanized spelling since the Greek language uses a different alphabet from English. I have also seen yia-yia rendered as yiayiah and gigia.
Greek Naming Practices and Other Traditions
As with many ancient cultures, many Greek traditions are dying out. They are especially likely to be abandoned by urban families and by those who immigrate to other countries. Greek-American families may not adhere to traditional practices, but these traditions still have an impact.
Greek tradition dictates that children be named after their grandparents. It is expected that the first son will be named after the paternal grandfather and the second after the maternal grandfather. The pattern is the same for daughters, with the first being named after the paternal grandmother and the second after the maternal grandmother. This system causes some confusion in families with a large number of siblings, because each sibling's children have the same names.
For that reason, and also due to modernization, many Greek and Greek-American parents have either modified this naming tradition or dispensed with it altogether.
One method is to give children the traditional name as a first name, but give a unique name as a second or middle name. In this system, the middle name becomes the name the child is known by.
Parents have also been known to give children a grandparent's name at baptism but put a different name on birth certificates.
Traditionally, children are not called by their name until after they are baptized, although modern Greek families may not adhere to this practice. Baptism takes place during the child's first year.
Most Greek names are saint names, and in the old-world tradition, birthdays are seldom celebrated. Instead Greeks celebrate the Name Day of their saint. Since the church recognizes hundreds of saints, every day is a Name Day for at least one saint, sometimes more. A person who is not named after a saint can celebrate on All Saints' Day.
Although the Name Day tradition may eclipse birthdays for adults, children's birthdays are enthusiastically celebrated by most modern Greek and Greek-American families.
Greek Family Values
Just as the paternal grandparents are honored first in naming, traditionally they also maintain stronger ties with their grandchildren. Ancient practice dictated that a young couple should make their home near the groom's parents and that the paternal grandparents should be involved in raising their grandchildren. This practice is contrary to much of the world, in which maternal grandparents tend to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
Greek culture is more homogeneous than some cultures, because the prevailing religion is Greek Orthodox.
Even those Greek who are non-observant tend to have great respect for religious practice. The ideal in many Greek families is for adult children to marry other Greeks and to have huge weddings in the church. Of course, as with other cultures, children don't always comply.
Another Greek concept is that family consists of multiple generations and that those generations should have harmonious relationships. The action of one family member reflects upon all of the family members. Family members are often in business together, so that makes the maintenance of a good name of utmost importance.
Family Celebrations and Religious Holidays
Greeks love holidays. All generations enjoy a holiday table loaded with delicious fare, usually combining newer recipes with family favorites. The family matriarchs are still responsible for most of the food preparation.
Christmas is celebrated for 12 days, ending on January 6. Many Greek families have adopted turkey as a main dish, although a holiday table often has several meat dishes. Soups, salads, bread and, of course, olives round out the meal. Traditional cookies or pastries provide a sweet finish.
Carnival, called Apokries, is celebrated with feasting, costumes and confetti. It ends on Clean Monday, which technically begins the previous evening with a church service. Celebrants ask for forgiveness from fellow church-goers so that they can begin Lent with a clean conscience. On the actual Monday, which is a public holiday in Greece, kite-building and kite-flying are traditional activities. Shellfish and other Lenten foods are consumed.
The Saturday before Easter, Holy Saturday, is celebrated with a nighttime church service. Right before midnight, all the lights in the church are turned off to symbolize the darkness of the tomb. The darkness ends at midnight with the lighting of candles, the singing of hymns, the pealing of bells and firework displays.
Easter Sunday, which is a more important holiday than Christmas in Greek culture, is traditionally celebrated with spit-roasted lamb. Many other delicacies are traditionally served, such as eggs that have been dyed red and the braided sweet bread known as tsoureki.
Although Greeks have adopted numerous holiday customs from other countries, a recent movement is promoting a return to Greek traditions. Instead of the widely adopted custom of decorating Christmas trees, some have returned to the older tradition of Christmas boats. These are miniature sailing vessels decorated with lights. Children sometimes carry them as they go door to door singing kalanda, or Christmas carols.