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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.
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.
@Fa5t3r - It used to be more about celebrating the Saints than about celebrating the people who happened to be named after the Saints. But we don't really remember most of those holidays, except where it has become a larger celebration, like St. Patrick's Day (which is more about celebrating Ireland for most people, than about the Saint himself).
@croydon - Honestly, this article has made me want to figure out when I have a name day so I can have two celebrations. And it can actually be really good to have a birthday on the same day as a friend because you can band together and have an even bigger party than you might have separately.
I don't think we should just be restricted to particular names though, so I wonder if they should redo it so that everyone has a birthday and a name-letter day, where we celebrate everyone beginning with the letter A, or B or so forth.
I think the change from celebrating name days to celebrating birthdays is kind of a reflection of changes in society in general. If you've got a tradition of celebrating name days, that means that you only really will have a limited supply of names to give to children and it's likely that multiple people in the same village will be celebrating on the same day. In fact, if you follow the practice of naming children after relatives you'll probably have several people celebrating within the same family on the same day.
So there is no chance for an individual to be elevated and it's all kept relatively communal.
Whereas now it's considered almost a bad thing if you share a
birthday with someone, or if your birthday is on a different holiday, because it means you don't get to have a day all to yourself where people will celebrate you.
I'm not saying either way is right or wrong, but it does show how much our society moves towards individualism.