Celebrating Your Child’s Name Day — and Your Own

“The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it.” (CCC 2158)

Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Saint Agnes”, ca. 1576
Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Saint Agnes”, ca. 1576 (photo: Public Domain)

On Jan. 21, we will take my daughter out to dinner and buy her a cake and a small gift. But it’s not her birthday — it’s her “name day,” and we celebrate it as we would a feast.

I don’t know how or why we started this tradition—I’m sure my parents didn’t even know when or if St. Kevin had a feast day on the Universal Church Calendar, so I didn’t get it from them—but at some point, my wife and I decided that it was important to acknowledge the saints for whom we named our twins.

Maybe it was due to the fact that we were on a wait list for a child to adopt that when we suddenly got the call that not one, but two children were available — fraternal twin infants, only six days old. We had to think and act fast. Within 24 hours the state’s department of Youth and Family Services delivered week-old babies to our very door.

Since the state could also—at least theoretically—have taken the children back since we had to “foster-parent” them for a year. The very first thing we did was call our parish priest to baptize them. We quickly gathered the four godparents (two in absentia) and then racked our brains about what to name these two brand-new babies.

There was no doubt that my daughter was to be “Agnes.” This was the name of my maternal grandmother who, for the better part of my young life, cooked dinners, did laundry, picked up my brother and sister and me from Catholic School, and generally was a vicar for my parents while the two of them were busy breaking their backs as a baker and a nurse so that we could attend the best Catholic schools. I’d always had a deep and abiding love for that woman and could think of no better way to honor her memory.

Agnes, too, was one of my favorite names, since “The Eve of Saint Agnes” is one of my favorite poems by the immortal John Keats. And it is on the feast of Saint Agnes that lambs are presented to the pope before they are shorn to make the pallia for the metropolitans. (For her middle name we had the happy choice of Isabel, which is both the first name of my mother-in-law and the Spanish equivalent of my own mother’s name, Elizabeth.)

For my son, we had a tougher time deciding: choices ranged from Norbert (I’d briefly lived at St. Norbert Canonry in Wisconsin), Pius (a nod to St. Padre Pio), Tomaso (my father’s Italianiate name), Cajetan (I’ve always been fascinated by the Theatines), Patrick (my own Confirmation name), Rocco (the name of a dear family friend), Lorenzo (at the time I was discerning a call to the diaconate), and, not surprisingly, Jesus (since the children were from South America).

But ultimately, we decided on the name of the saint who was not then yet a saint (technically): Giovanni Paolo, John Paul, who had just died two years prior. My wife and I had a great devotion to the Polish pope and once we said it, there was no other name discussion: His name is Giovanni Paolo.

So twice a year, on the Feast of Saint Agnes, and that of Saint John Paul II, we attend Mass as a family in honor of these two great saints, and then the child whose feast day it is gets to choose where we go out to dinner (and dessert). Later, I read a selection to the family from Butler’s Lives of the Saints about their namesake and, of course, we remember them at bedtime prayers.

That our twins are named after two of the most illustrious saints our faith has ever produced there can be no doubt: Saint Agnes, the child-virgin-martyr from the earliest days of the Church at Rome, whose bravery in the face of persecution is an example to all of us. And then St. John Paul the Great: a saint so well-known that it seems almost superfluous to recount his many trials, triumphs, accomplishments and miracles.

This might have been the end of the story but one day, to our common surprise, the twins asked my wife and me: “Why don’t we celebrate your feast days?”

Out of the mouths of babes.

It was a legitimate question. For one thing, “Saint Kevin” isn’t even on the revised Calendar of the Universal Church and appears only in passing in Butler’s as “Saint Coemgen” on June 3. He doesn’t show up in the official Roman Martyrology at all. So instead we celebrate my Confirmation saint’s name, Patrick, which is a much easier situation to rejoice in, given that there are parades, songs, Irish flags, banners and lots of secular celebrations, too.

My wife’s situation is even stranger—and a bit for difficult: “Alicia” doesn’t show up in Butler’s or The Roman Martyrology and the closest Latin cognate is “Aleydis” (“Alice”), a name she isn’t wild about. Odder still, my wife lacks both a middle name as well as a Confirmation name, simply having retained her baptismal name at Confirmation, so we can’t fall back on that, either. So for the present she’s resigned to St. Aleydis’s commemoration on June 15.

I’d love to take credit for all (or even some) of the above, but in truth the first years of our twins’ lives with us is such a blur I don’t know how or why we began observing their saints’ name days as the equivalent of a “mini-birthday party.” However, 10 years on, I’m glad we’ve done so and encourage other families to do the same. If nothing else we’ve learned a lot about Saints Agnes and John Paul the Great—and even a little about the obscure saints Kevin and Aleydis.