Monday, March 3, 2014

Name Days and Celebrate Your Name Week (March 2 - 8, 2014) -- Mehitable and Dorcas and Peleg . . . Oh My!

I was recently exploring the unusual names that appear in our family genealogies and came across the tradition of "Name Days" whereby certain first names are celebrated on a particular calendar day each year.  It seems the tradition is largely a European and Latin American phenomenon derived from the Christian calendar of saints. In fact, the church preferred the celebration of name days associated with saints over actual birth days because birth day celebrations were viewed as pagan.

In the old tradition, people who were named after a given saint would celebrate their name saint's feast day and that day became the "Name Day" for those sharing the saint's name.  In the course of time a direct connection to Christian tradition waned and in many cases a calendar day for a given name was assigned somewhat arbitrarily. Still, the tradition seems to be more common and popular in those countries that are predominantly Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.  Those from a Catholic tradition have name days still associated with saint feast days, but those from an Eastern Orthodox tradition have name days assigned based on the day a saint died or "fell asleep" as that tradition puts it.

Among the countries where Name Day is a popular tradition are Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine, Turkey, Spain, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, and others. The name days for given names (or their equivalents) are not uniform across countries. So, for example, the given name "Kristoffer" in Sweden has its Name Day on March 15th, whereas the name "Christopher" in Greece has its Name Day on the 9th of May. 

Today, March 3rd (the 62nd day of the year), is Name Day for all those named "Guenole" in France, "Gunborg" in Sweden, "Hieronim" and "Maryna" in Poland, "Kunigunde" in Denmark, and "Anselm" in Croatia. 

Not to be left out, the United States has an "American Nameday Calendar of First Names" originally published in 1982.  You can read about the history of this particular calendar here. Publication of the 2014 calendar is delayed for technical reasons, but if we go by the 2013 calendar, today we should all be wishing "Happy Name Day" to all the Alexandrias, Lexis, Sandras, Sashas and others we know. According to the American Nameday Calendar of First Names, with a first name of "John" I have to wait until June 24th to celebrate my name day!

BUT, there is also a "Celebrate Your Name Week" which was created as recently as 1997. Onomatology [the study of proper names] hobbyist, Jerry Hill, set the first full week of March each year as Celebrate Your Name Week-- so yesterday began the celebration week here in the U.S. and around the world!  [Who knew?] This week-long celebration calls for seven facets of orderly recognition during the first week of March: Name Tag Day, Namesake Day, Name Fun Facts Day, Unique Names Day, Learn What Your Name Means Day, Middle Name Pride Day, and [yes] GENEALOGY DAY next Saturday! This means I can proudly wear my "John" name tag today and then learn on Friday that my first name means "God is gracious" and that ts currently ranks as the 28th most popular male name in the United States -- and it is on the decline.

So with all this Name Game* business going on this week, I went back to look up some of the unusual names in our family genealogies. Here are some of the first names that sound pretty unusual to me and that I thought would not have a name day:  Mehitable, Dorcas, Peleg, Remember, Thankful, Elnathan, Toleration, Lemyra, Experience, Preserved, Asquire, Abadial, Zenith, Almanza, Zilla, Sarepta, and others. Surprisingly, however, the only one of the above names to be listed on the American Nameday Calendar of First Names, is perhaps one of the strangest to my ear -- "Dorcas," a female name that we celebrate on August 25th!

What are the unusual first names in your genealogy -- and do they have a Name Day so far as you know?
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Generic name tag image altered by the author.

* See "The Name Game" of "The Banana Song" at and listen to the 1964 hit version of the song by Shirley Ellis at
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Copyright 2014, John D. Tew
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  1. Name days are popular in Spain. When I married a Spaniard and visited Spain I learned that these days are more important than birthdays. On one's saint's day you must invite your friend's out to dinner, and pay for the whole thing. Good thing there was no Saint Heather on the catholic calendar in Spain!

  2. I am from France and I celebrate my name's day on 26th July. And since my birthday is close to Christmas, my grandmother decided that I should get my birthday present on that day instead of December. I thought that was cool! Also when we were stationed in Italy, our Italian neighbors had big to-dos on their name's day and hardly any celebration on their birthday.