Czech Name Day Tradition
Written by Jan Tichy
One of the strongest Czech traditions, even embodied by national law, is Jmeniny (Name’s Day). There is more to this tradition than just simply celebrating your name day on the calendar. Here’s a peek behind the curtain.
First of all, it’s almost exclusively a European holiday. The tradition can find its roots, as with many European traditions, in religion. Specifically, in Christianity. It has been, without a doubt, the dominant religion throughout time across the ever-changing European borders. The Christian tradition of celebrating the patron saints gave the church an opportunity to enhance the official calendar and enable the parishioners and the faithful to worship their saints, day by day, all year round. As expected, the first names in the calendar were of various patron saints. On any given day, not only were the life and deeds of the saint celebrated, but also all the holders of the same name were allowed to celebrate the day as their own. In some Christian communities, one’s Name Day may hold even bigger importance than one´s birthday. Many saints held the same name, thus Christian worshipers of the same name may have celebrated their Name Days on different days in the year, depending on which saint they had chosen as their patron saint. The saint’s day is based on the date of their passing. Many Christian calendars may differ from the official John Paul IV´s. Some Christians were also given various names during the act of confirmation or entry to the Order, so they celebrate more Name Days according to the names they bear.
The patron saint is an inspiration for his worshipers and also a role model in life. Name Days celebrate not only the saint and their deeds, but also their own heritage, hidden in the names they were given by their parents. Over time, the tradition has experienced some changes, but most of them aren’t significant. A shift from purely Christian tradition to more secular celebrations of the name can be seen in the last few centuries, as European countries kept their calendars with the names, and thus, kept the tradition alive, making it more accessible to non-Christians. The modern calendars are very different from the old Christian ones. The most apparent change is that any given name is included only once, thus eliminating multiple entries, with the exception of Peter (Petr in Czech) whose Name Day occurs twice – February 22nd and June 29th, together with Paul (Pavel in Czech). It is no surprise, as Peter is one of the most typical Christian names. Not so long ago, the name Petr was in the calendar three times. The deleted entry was October 19th. The modern trends are to eliminate multiple entries and double up the names on a single day to include more modern names, even the rare ones. Before 1990, the Czech Republic had a special committee to maintain the names in the calendar and the names given to newborn children. The process of naming your child was not so easy; the name given to the child by their parents had to be approved by this committee, and only then could it have been written in the register of births and deaths. After 1990, the committee was disbanded, and children in the Czech Republic can be given almost any name. In recent years, we have seen the rise of Tobias, Vanessa, Eleonora, Sofie, Matyas, Nikolas, etc. Parents eventually pressure the publishers of calendars to include these names. The process is rather painful and time-consuming, but parents have seen some success in this matter in the past few years.
In conclusion, Name Day as a Christian celebration of particular saints mostly occurs within Catholic and orthodox countries, whereas non-religious celebrations of a name are a favorite European pastime. Secular tradition is simply a celebration of the name and follow accordingly – only simple congratulations are in order. In some families, presents are given to the celebrated name bearer.
Typical names usually come from old languages. Thus, every name bears a resemblance to the olden days, and holds a hidden meaning. The layout of the traditional calendar follows these quite closely and puts some names right where they are supposed to be. The typical Czech name Jaroslav (my grand-dad was Jaroslav) consists of two words – Jaro (Spring) and Slav (Celebrate). Jaroslav’s Name Day comes on 27th April, which is in spring. Many more examples can be found throughout the calendar.
Another aspect of Name Days comes with old folk and weather sayings – these are closely connected with names and their particular days. One such example is Anna. It is said that “Saint Anna, cold in the morning,”which many of us understand as a coy weather prediction. There is a circle of extremely popular names, such as Josef, Anna, Martin (he brings the first snow, “coming on a white horse”), and Stepan, whose Name day comes on 26th December – in western countries, Boxing Day; in the Czech Republic, a second Christmas Holiday.
Name days are a continental Europe phenomenon. They are celebrated in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Croatia, Italy, Latvia, Hungary, Germany, Norway, Poland, Austria, Russia, Greece, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Ukraine, in one way or another. Here, in the Czech Republic, which, according to the last census, is over 90 % atheist, Name days are one old tradition we keep just for the old times sake. Most people happily accept congratulations as a lovely reminder that they are appreciated and valued, while not requiring a need for a present. Although, a small token of appreciation is usually welcomed. For children, Name days are a welcome way to get more presents. And in some families, parents use it to make the children aware of the heritage of the name the child bears, and the obligation to live their life accordingly.
This brings us to the process of actually naming one’s offspring. The strictly controlled process is now a thing of the past, and parents can choose any name possible. There are still some rules in place, however. There must be a record of this name’s usage, and it cannot be offensive or nonsense. Other than that, anything is possible. We are slowly catching up to the USA or the UK, where a child can bear almost any name from any language of the world. European rules are still in place, some more powerful than others, but so far, common sense still wins. And although there are exceptions to the rule, most parents keep it reasonable and choose a traditional name. It is up to them whether their child bears a name that corresponds with the times or they are given a novelty name, which may not come across that well. All in all, it´s not the name itself, but how we live, that matters the most.