Birthdays have gained international acceptance as our ‘special day’ of the year when we receive gifts and flowers and have parties in our honour. Birthdays are seen as some of the major milestones in our lives, while name days get little to no attention. If you have grown up in a culture where the latter was the norm, it may come to you as a surprise that in Hungary, also name days take the cake and are to be enjoyed with joie de vivre surrounded by friends and loved ones. But where does this tradition come from?
According to divany.hu, Hungarians can give virtually any name to their children as long as MTA (Hungarian Academy of Sciences) approves their requests. And boy, they are creative. Hannibal and Ramszesz are currently popular registered names for boys while girls can be lawfully called Pomponia (just to follow the ancient theme), Sanel (which most probably comes from the couture brand, Chanel) or Sáfrány (saffron in English). Those who are not good at remembering important days can get a little help from florists’ websites where they list each name day according to the dates in the calendar.
In many parts of the world, people have never heard of such an unusual tradition as celebrating one’s name day. This custom is closely linked to religion and has been around already since the Middle Ages. Name days were the days when a saint, martyr, or otherwise holy person was commemorated by the Christian Church. For example, on the day of Katalin, 25 November, we remember the dreadful martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in 305 AD.
The legend has it that she was an educated young girl of noble origin, possibly a princess. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius fell in love with Catherine and intended to take her for his wife. He demanded that she renounce her new faith and ordered 50 philosophers to persuade Catherine to change her mind. But instead of winning her over, Catherine converted them to Christianity whereupon the emperor had the philosophers burned alive. The same thing happened to the 200 soldiers Maxentius sent to her. However, the emperor did not take no for an answer and in the end, he had the young woman beheaded.
On the day of Santa Claus, the 6th of December, we celebrate those who are named Miklós remembering Saint Nicholas, the early Christian bishop of Greek descent
while on the day of Márton we commemorate Saint Martin bishop, also called Martin the Merciful, who lived around the 4th century just like the two previously mentioned saints.
The more traditional names with a religious background appear more than one time in the name day calendar. The reason behind this is that the different churches — Catholic, Calvinistic and Lutheran — designated different days for each saint. Hence, we can celebrate the day of Katalin on four different occasions, the 15th of August, the 8th or 12th of September or the 8th of December. When you have a friend called Péter or László, it can be also tricky to know on which day that person celebrates his name day, as these names appear multiple times in the calendar.
We usually await our own and our friends’ or loved one’s name days with great anticipation. Namedays also provide good opportunities to express our love or admiration towards colleagues or acquaintances that we are not that close to. Those who were not invited to the family gathering can still surprise the celebrated person with a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of wine. Even though it gives a good opportunity to throw a party and let the good times roll, the majority of the nations do not celebrate name days.
In Poland, name days are widely celebrated and have traditionally been given greater importance than birthday celebrations.
However, most people in the Netherlands, France, Croatia, Slovenia, UK and US have probably never heard of this tradition. Interestingly, Germans used to celebrate name days but they do not keep them anymore after WWII. On the other hand, Slovakians, Romanians, Serbians, Bulgarians, Greeks and the Czechs would not miss the occasion to give a toast to their loved ones on their name days.
Read also: Get to know some Hungarian Easter traditions