Celebrating your name like you would your birthday

By | September 16, 2011

So, for those of you named Mary (or Miriam, Maria, Maya or any other derivation of the name of the Blessed Mother), you might want to get ready. Your name day is coming up. Sept. 12 is the feast of the Holy Name of Mary.


Name days celebrate our baptismal names — or, more correctly, the Christian names we received at baptism. These are often the names of saints, but they can also be derivations of holy events such as Anastasia, which is originally a Greek name meaning “resurrection.”

Name days are celebrated on the feast days of saints who share our names. Now not everyone gets a saint’s name at baptism. While most of the top 20 baby names listed by the Social Security Administration for 2010 seem to have Christian — or at least biblical — connections, not all are as readily apparent as Jacob or Sophia (from the Greek word for wisdom). For example, one might not think that the current number eight girls’ name — Madison — has a connection to a Christian name. And yet Madison is sometimes listed as deriving from “Mad’s son” with “Mad” being a diminutive of Matthew, like Jimmy is of James.

People with names such as “Star” or “Butler” might need to look to their middle names to find a saint for a name day. Or they might choose their confirmation names, since we are asked to select a saint we might wish to emulate when we approach this sacrament.

The same consideration is usually expected for a baptismal name, but it is not required by the church. Canon law only says that “parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given” (can. 855).

Yes, there really are some names that might be better avoided. A good example comes from New Zealand. Just this summer, the national Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages banned “Lucifer” as an accepted baby name. (It also banned names like “Bishop” and “King,” which are probably better for horses anyway.)

Since most early Christians were baptized as adults, not all of them changed their names. However, some did choose to be known by a new name, in honor of a saint – often a martyr. For example, “The Catholic Encyclopedia” cites the “Acts of St. Balsamus” (martyred in 331 A.D.) as showing a connection between baptism and a new name: “By my paternal name I am called Balsamus, but by the spiritual name which I received in baptism, I am known as Peter.”

Baptism and confirmation are two ways by which one can acquire a name day saint, but there are also patron saints to consider. While one’s patron saint is usually one’s name saint, that’s not always the case. The word “patron” comes from the Latin patronus which derives from “father.”

In ancient Rome, a patron was someone who became your legal advocate. Early Roman senators had the title of patronus, as did the former owners of slaves who became freed. A patronus was obligated to help you. But the obligation worked both ways — while the patronus protected you and looked out for your interests, you were expected to give financial support to that patronus.

Our patron saints help us too — be they name saints or a saint who came into our lives later. They do so through the union we call the Communion of the Saints. All members of Christ’s church — both in this world and in the next — share in this communion. St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians explained this communion: “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26).

Patron saints act as intercessors for us with God. They add their prayers to ours when we approach God. We also look to saints for guidance in living holy lives. For our part, we honor their memories and invite them to share in our celebrations of faith.

What’s the best way to pick a patron saint if you don’t have a name saint — or if you don’t really connect well with the name saint you do have? You can always pick a patron saint based on what you do. There are saints for all sorts of occupations and hobbies, such as St. Hubert for hunters (Nov. 3) or St. Francis of Assisi for pet lovers (Oct. 4). And you could always choose to celebrate on the best name day of all: “All Saints Day.”

Since that feast falls on Nov. 1, you still have plenty of time to plan the party and bake the cake.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “A Law Dictionary” at thefreedictionary.com; “A Latin Dictionary” at perseus.tufts.edu; “The Holyday Book”; the 1983 Code of Canon Law; ssa.gov; and the Sydney Morning Herald at smh.com.au.

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