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What is a Name Day?

Members of the Eastern Orthodox Church commonly celebrate name days.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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A name day is often also called a feast day, and is frequently celebrated by Catholics and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, particularly in Europe. The name day is celebrated when a person shares a name with a saint on the day designated to honor that saint. So, for example, those named Patrick or Patricia would celebrate their name day on St. Patrick’s Day, which is the 17th of March, according to Catholic calendars of saints.

The celebration of the name day became popular during the middle ages, and many celebrated a name day instead of a birthday. Celebrating a birthday was often viewed as less than Christian, and many believed it was not right to elevate oneself to a status requiring honor. This position is still held by Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not celebrate birthdays, a name day or holidays.

Celebrating birthdays was also linked to non-Christian traditions. Celebrating a name day instead put the focus on the particular saint and was thought to inspire one to the virtues of one’s name day saint. In modern Greece, it is still more common to celebrate a name day than to celebrate birthdays.

However, not all people with the same or derivative names celebrate the same name day. It very much depends upon which liturgical calendar for saints one uses. Finland uses a calendar of name days similar to that of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Catholics use a different calendar.

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A name day may be celebrated very much like a birthday. This is common in Poland, and Russia. People may receive gifts and also have family or friends over for a special dinner. Birthdays may also be celebrated in both countries.

Latvian traditions are quite different. Name days do not correspond with the names of the saints, and each calendar day may be associated with up to four names. People can even submit names for inclusion in calendars. When a person’s name day arrives, he or she celebrates in birthday fashion.

Offices and schools often make quite a production out of celebrating name days in Latvia, and with many workers or students, a good chance for celebrating occurs quite often. Unlike birthday traditions where people receive gifts, on a name day, people often give small gifts of candies or treats to schoolmates or office workers.

In the US, the name day is not celebrated with any regularity. Some members of the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches still observe a name day. However, usually the US birthday tradition is far more important than the name day. Those in the US who are not Christian would have little reason to celebrate a name day, as being named after a saint would not matter much.

Additionally, it is now less common in the US to name children after saints. Many prefer more unusual names for their children than those names associated with saints. However schools often take the opportunity of giving each child a chance to be the VIP for a week or a day, and celebrations of the child’s uniqueness and contributions to the school are quite common.

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