Name Days began in medieval Europe as a way of replacing the pagan custom of birthday celebrations with the Christian tradition of saints’ days. The Name Day was to honour your patron saint (the one you were named after), and complicated calendars were drawn up based on saintly feast days.
In modern Europe, Name Days have mostly lost their Christian overtones and become more of a folk tradition. Even the link to saints’ feast days seem to have been broken in many countries, with the date of the Name Day not always correlating with any special date in the saint’s hagiography.
In many countries, your Name Day is more of a big deal than your birthday, and it is certainly a lot more public. While only family and close friends might know when your birthday is, everyone who knows your name knows when it’s your Name Day – it’s written right there in the calendar!It was my Name Day last month. I have the same cake each year: a pavlova with my name spelled out in strawberries – A-N-N-A (Anna Pavlova, geddit?) I love the idea of Name Days, and I certainly love celebrating them. I can probably thank the German and Danish part of my heritage, and being a name enthusiast, for that. The problem is that Name Days as they are usually recognised don’t really have much to with your name. They started out in honour of a saint, and once that link began to erode, became more like an extra birthday.
In our household, we celebrate each other’s Name Days. They have similar rituals to our birthdays, in that the person having the Name Day is excused from their regular household chores, gets to choose what amusements take place in their honour, and receives cards, gifts and a cake.
However, we try to make their name the focus of the day. Just as a birthday is a time to express your joy at that person having been born, for us, a Name Day is a time to celebrate the name that was chosen for them.
So the Name Day cake is either suggested by the name, or has the name written on it, or both. We usually decorate the dining room and table to match, so that I might have ballerina decorations, or Russian-style ones (to suggest Anna Karenina), or wintery princess ones (to suggest the movie Frozen). The Name Day gift is likewise suggested by the name, or has the name written on it.
On the children’ Name Days, we might take the opportunity to talk about why we chose their name, and how much we love it; as they get older, more complex layers of their name story are revealed. Gifts and decorations are also a way to show the meaning of names, and their associations, without giving a lecture on the subject.
Once my youngest daughter started school, she found one of her classmates had the same name as her, and they soon became best friends. She couldn’t wait to tell her friend about Name Days so they could share their celebrations. That’s one of the joys of Name Days – you get an instant connection with someone based on your name.
I like the idea that we could all celebrate our Name Days, because even in Europe, where the calendars are based on saintly feast days, it means that anyone who has a name not shared with a saint is left out, because there is no official Name Day for them.
In English-speaking countries, we have such a wide variety of names open to us, with new names being created all the time, it would seem an impossible task to draw up an official list of Name Days (although the site My Name Day has had a red-hot go, assigning more than 2000 common names based on dates in American history and culture). However, if we have such freedom with names, then we are also free to decide for ourselves on what day our Name Day might fall.
You could use personal associations, such as the birthday of the person you were named after. Or, if you named your son after the place where you and your partner met, you could use that date as his Name Day. Month names and nature names seem to match neatly with particular times of the year, while names from other cultures may connect with certain dates, such as Buddha’s Birthday for Bodhi, or Diwali for Sita. Names from popular culture could be celebrated on their creator’s birthday, or on a release date.
Name Days are just one activity which I think has brought us closer as a family, and I hope it is helping to give our daughters a better understanding and appreciation of their names. I know many girls become dissatisfied with their names in their teenage years, and I wonder if it would make a difference if they had twelve years of their name being celebrated behind them? (I haven’t had the pleasure of raising teens yet, so I’m prepared to have this hypothesis exploded!)