Celebrate Your ‘Name Day,’ for Heaven’s Sake
A look at the liturgical significance of festivities in honor of patron saints.
In Ohio, Ryan and MaryBeth Eberhard and their eight children get their own distinctive day aside from their birthday to celebrate every year. In California, James and Kendra Tierney and their 10 children find themselves in the same happy situation.
“There are three special days we celebrate,” Kendra Tierney explained to the Register: birthday, baptismal anniversary and patron saint’s name day. “It’s important that we don’t only celebrate when you were born, but when you became a part of the Catholic Church and the saint who was specifically chosen as an advocate for you.”
“That’s really the foundation of the liturgical living in our home,” said Kendra, author of The Catholic All Year Compendium: Liturgical Living for Real Life (Ignatius) and blogger at CatholicAllYear.com.
The celebration of saints’ feasts is a part of the Church’s liturgical life, according to Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser in Religious Customs in the Family: The Radiation of the Liturgy Into Catholic Homes. One observing a name saint’s feast, he writes, “immediately enters into the warm sphere of liturgical radiation and spiritual enrichment.”
In fact, before the more recent practice of reveling on birthdays, the Christian custom was to celebrate the saint’s feast day whose name was given in baptism.
In some places, “name days” still top birthdays. Father Carlos Martins, of the Companions of the Cross and director of the Treasures of the Church, a ministry evangelizing through saints’ relics, points out that in Italy “the feast day of the saint who shares your name de facto becomes ‘your day.’ Called your onomastico (name day), these are given more importance than one’s birthday precisely because they have a religious significance.”
While it’s been a long Vatican tradition to give a holiday to workers on a reigning pope’s birthday, one recent pope preferred celebrating his name day instead of birthday, said Father Martins, noting that “out of devotion to his patron, St. Charles Borromeo, Pope John Paul II [Karol or Charles] instead gave the employees the day of his onomastico (Nov. 4) rather than his birthday (May 18).”
Father Martins describes such saintly celebration as entailing greetings by friends and family and usually a special meal, a cake and small gifts. “But more than this, there is the invocation of the prayers and blessing of one’s heavenly patron.” And many celebrations include the tradition “of performing a pious work or an act of charity on that day, with either the saint being the beneficiary, or, if the beneficiary is the poor, the work is done in the name of the saint.” Some families traditionally give the person celebrating a name day a “spiritual bouquet” of a Rosary, or Mass offering, or work of mercy “offered to the saint on his behalf for the purposes of the saint’s increased intercession.”
Both the Tierneys, whose children range in age from 10 months old to 18 years, and the Eberhards, whose children range from 8 to 18 years old, make the day special for each child.
Early on, the Eberhards bought patron saint peg dolls from St. Luke’s Brush for each child, which has led to “quite a collection of feast-day dolls,” MaryBeth said, explaining that these saintly depictions come out on the given name day. Since each child also has an icon of his or her patron saint on the wall, the icon is placed on the dining room table during the day’s mealtimes. The appropriate saint book from their family library gets placed on a stand on the table, too, “so we remember to read it,” she added. Naturally, an important part of the celebration is “to ask our saint to pray for us.”
Kendra explained the Tierneys’ tradition that “on each person’s name day we either let that person choose a special meal and dessert or have a special meal in honor of the saint … like English bangers and mash and a St. George cross crumble for the feast of St. George; or a lunch of random animal-related foods for St. Francis: corn dog, ants on a log and circus animals; or French crepes for St. Louise de Marillac. And we have a ‘you are special today’ plate that you get to use.”
For both families, central to celebrating each name day are family conversations about the particular saint, including discussion about how each member can relate to that saint. Kendra points out how, on St. James the Greater’s feast day (July 25), husband James can “tell the kids about ways he has prayed for the intercession of his saint or ways he’s been inspired. It facilitates conversation.”
“That’s why our liturgical living in the home is a big part of our family life,” Kendra said. “It started with me by celebrating our kids’ name days. Starting in the home and with the saints was most important to our family.”
One of the lessons on the name day (June 29) of Eberhard son Peter Blase, 15, is “how St. Peter made tons of mistakes and yet the Lord chose him,” mom MaryBeth explained. “We go through the mercy and charity and trust the Lord had for Peter. We can see ourselves in the footprints of our saints. We stumble and fall along our way. St. Peter is a great example of that. They are our namesakes, so they walk alongside us.”
Peter’s patron saint and 14-year-old son Gabriel David’s patron saint together form “model witnesses as far as human life right now,” MaryBeth added. “As parents we use those stories of the patron saints as examples for how we should act day to day,” continued MaryBeth, who blogs at MaryBethEberhard.com. When the feast of St. Catherine of Siena rolls around for 8-year-old Sarah Katherine, and the feast of St. Clare comes for daughter Lily Clare, Mom and Dad use specific stories from St. Catherine of Siena (April 29) or St. Clare (Aug. 11) to teach sacrifice and outreach to the poor.
Rather than using the usual first name as their patron saint, some of the family members have decided to use their middle or confirmation name for their patron saint name day, like son Samuel. “My oldest son has a strong connection with St. Maximilian Kolbe [Aug. 14],” MaryBeth explained. “He has done research and connected the virtues of the saint. As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten courage to step out there with [efforts to showcase] what he believes in today’s society. I see him putting that into practice. As a parent, it’s really important to use the patron saints to teach life lessons and teach the virtues. We ask often for their intercession. We keep them as close friends. We keep them very close to our hearts.”
Through the celebration of name days, family members underscore the saints are examples to emulate. The Tierneys celebrate St. Robert Bellarmine (Sept. 17) for 16-year-old son Robert and St. Joan of Arc (May 30) for 14-year-old Elizabeth Jeanne. While Joan of Arc was emphatic and outgoing, Kendra said, “My oldest daughter is not; she’s naturally more a reserved person. Having St. Joan of Arc as one of her patrons can inspire her to get out of her comfort zone. In the same way, her first name is Elizabeth. We know that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton [Jan. 4] — there are so many other Elizabeths, also — was a little quieter, studious, a teacher. We can be inspired to appreciate those parts of [Elizabeth Jeanne’s] personality by one of the saints and [encourage her to] get out of her comfort zone by another saint.”
In every celebration, “Learning about the saints has really affected the culture of our family,” Kendra added. “And having these days where we celebrate saints throughout the year gives a great perspective on how different the saints are and how many different ways and paths there are to get to heaven.”
She advised, “Start in the home and with the saints most important to your family.”
Pick a Saint
Kendra gets emails from people who do not have a saint’s name or say they didn’t give their child a saint’s name. Others are converts seeking a patron. She has several suggestions for such queriers. Start with your confirmation name (as in her own case, since there is no canonized “St. Kendra”). Or pick a saint to which you have a special devotion. For a first name like Cooper, Kendra suggests turning to patrons of coopers, or barrel makers, which is among the patronages of Sts. Michael (Sept. 29), Nicholas (Dec. 6), Florian (May 4), Patrick (March 17) and Urban of Langres (April 2).
What if a child has a more unusual name, such as a popular automobile?
Kendra suggests looking to St. Christopher (July 25), patron of travelers, and Our Lady of Loreto (Dec. 10), patroness of flying. There’s also St. Raphael (Sept. 29) and St. Joseph (March 19 and May 1), whose saintly specialties oversee travel, too.
In the Eberhards’ case, husband Ryan is a convert. Since there isn’t a St. Ryan, he chose Thomas More (June 22) as his patron saint because More always spoke the truth; his dictum was: “Speak truth into light,” which, MaryBeth said, is “something that is very close to my husband’s heart, and he brings to light the importance in these times to speak the truth and live the truth.”
At the dinner table and with the children, Ryan “connects all their patron saints [to modern culture], and we talk about the importance of speaking truth in these times. The mission of the Church is to speak truth and light, and we are a domestic church making sure we are that example and [reflecting on] how we carry that forward with their help.”
Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser’s own experience of his name day (St. Francis Xavier, Dec. 3) “was one of the eloquent lessons which our religious customs taught me without words, but with an effect greater than many words could achieve,” he writes in Religious Customs in the Family: The Radiation of the Liturgy Into Catholic Homes; such celebrations included Mass, a special breakfast, gifts and prayers.And Father Carlos Martins, director of the Treasures of the Church, tells of another well-taught lesson. “Celebrating a feast day not only honors a saint by commemorating his or her life and merits, it also connects us with the mystery of salvation, that process by which the Christian is grafted onto, and becomes part of, the Mystical Body of Christ.” — Joseph Pronechen
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.