A Day for Your Name

     By Marika, Grade 5, Jeanne Sauve French Immersion School, London, Ontario, Canada

     Imagine having a day that was invented for your name! You've probably never heard of this, but Latvia and other countries in Europe celebrate a day called Names Day.

     On November 11, we celebrate the Name Day of my uncle, Martin Jurjans. Names Day is a celebration held every year on November 11 in the house of Martin Jurjans, my uncle, in honour of his name. We celebrate Names Day like we do birthdays. We have all kinds of little treats and a big centrepiece which is usually turkey and sauerkraut. Everybody has fun because you get to see your whole family. For the Jurjans that is a big party, because we have over fifty cousins and millions of aunts and uncles! Another thing that's pretty cool is that everybody gets their own Names Day: If your name is "Andrew," you would get your own Names Day! Each one of you has a Names Day. Pretty cool.

     What are nimipäivät and namnsdagar?

     "Namedays" are an old custom whereby many names have a fixed day on the calendar where everyone who has a given name celebrates. In Scandinavia and the Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia, the date assigned to a given name often has to do with a saint's traditional feast day or with a festival whose date has been given a name associated with some aspect of the festival (or assigned a Christian equivalent, like St. John's or St. Lucy's Day). There is no one given calendar of names for the region — not only does each country have its own set of names, but calendars have been revised at different times for different reasons. This is why Swedish names in Finland and Sweden are sometimes celebrated on completely different days. The Finnish Orthodox Church uses its own nameday/saint's day calendar.

     The important role of namedays in folk culture is retained through various proverbs and sayings. Certain namedays were strongly associated with particular events on the farming calendar. In Estonian, the expression "Every ram has his St. Michael's day," being the equivalent of the English expression "every dog has his day," seems a bit obtuse to modern city dwellers. However, St. Michael's day in Estonia was closely associated with the slaughter of animals for the long winter months ahead. Some days, like Knut's day (January 6th), are still the day to take down the Christmas tree in much of Scandinavia. Although the names have their roots in the old Catholic calendar, it is important to remember that namedays in this region do not today have the same religious overtones as in México or Russia, for example. Everyone whose name appears on the calendar can celebrate his or her nameday whether or not they are Christian.

     In Finland, after childhood, birthdays are not widely celebrated beyond the family circle, with the exception of "important" birthdays such as 50, 60, 70, 75, 80, 90, and so forth. However, everyone can, and should, be congratulated on his or her nameday and close friends and colleagues might give a small gift or card to the person whose name is being celebrated. It is much less formal than American birthdays.