Name Day (Névnap) celebrations are a popular tradition in Hungary. In Hungary, there is a registry of names that you can pick from when naming a child, and every child is given a name from that list. Each day of the year in Hungary is dedicated to 2-3 Hungarian names, and on that day, everyone who has those names gets celebrated. Name Day celebrations are similar but not as elaborate as birthdays. They are announced each day in the newspaper and on the radio, and throughout the day, Hungarians exchange celebratory greetings with the people whose names are being celebrated. Flowers and desserts are customarily given as small gifts, and a feast is often held in the evening with family and close friends to round out the day’s festivities. Where possible, the gifts and food are usually themed around the name being celebrated in associated recipes, cards, engravings, etc.
The informant participated in this tradition when he was living in Hungary as a child. He explained how many countries have Saint Day celebrations where everyone who has the name of a saint gets celebrated, but Hungary made this more inclusive by expanding these celebrations to include names from Hungary’s pagan history as well.
I would like to argue that Hungarian Name Day celebrations, which are meant to be secular holidays, in fact, have a distinctly religious purpose. My informant made a point of mentioning that many European countries have Saint Day celebrations, where everyone with the name of a saint is celebrated on a certain day of the year. However, Hungary chose to expand this to also include names in its pagan history that were not related to the saints or other biblical figures. However, why they chose to do this, I believe, is something worth probing further. While on the surface it could be argued that it was simply to be more inclusive, this doesn’t seem to add up. To explain, my informant told me that Hungary has a predetermined registry of names that every parent must pick from when naming their child. There are two lists, one for boys and one for girls. There are no gender neutral options, he said, and there is no room for creativity or personal expression. This rigid naming convention seems contrary towards promoting inclusivity, and so I would like to push back against the notion that Hungary merely expanded this holiday to seem “more inclusive.” I believe that it may have been a way of getting more of the population to identify with what was traditionally a Christian holiday (Saint Days), and thus, even historically pagan families with pagan names would be drawn to celebrate their Name Days in traditional Christian fashion, receiving gifts and acknowledgement to make them feel special. The customary rituals, gift giving, and greetings throughout the day all contribute to the appeal and allure of this annual celebration. Name Day celebrations were arguably aimed at attracting more people to Christian holidays, and so I conjecture that this ostensibly “pagan” holiday was a way of subtly reinforcing and promoting Christian values.
The informant is a 20 year old male who moved from Bulgaria to Chicago as a child. He tells me about a name day tradition that he continues to celebrate even living in the US, and how he feels it’s an important part of his culture and life.
Name day is a celebration for your name and is celebrated just like a birthday. Mine is January 7th because it correlated with my name. Name days comes from the Orthodox Christian religion and its saints. The Orthodox calendar is full of days devoted to different saints. In the past, when Christianity was establishing itself as a main religion in Bulgaria, people began giving their children the same names as the saints from this calendar. People believed that the child named after a certain saint will be looked after and blessed by him/her. Over time, people started celebrating the day kind of like a birthday!I learned about it through my family and it has been a tradition to celebrate it every year, even though we have stopped following many other traditions since we moved from Bulgaria to the US. My family celebrates it by giving decently small gifts or money to the person who’s name were celebrating, and in return the person either buys cake or prepares dinner. Other families go out to restaurants or bars but my family prefers to keep it intimate. Not every name has a date for celebration, only certain common slavic names like mine; Ivan. Celebrating means a lot to my family and we continue to do it every year because it makes us proud to follow traditions from the country were from (Bulgaria).
The informant spoke about these name days as if it were a second birthday. He explained that as a kid he would look forward to it just as much as he would his actual birthday and received gifts and attention all the same. I found this piece interesting because I have really never heard of people having a special day like this each year besides a birthday. It is very common for people to celebrate different days and occasions of coming of age, but this seems to be considered just as important as a birthday each year. I also think that having a whole day dedicated to you because of your name might offer an extra sense of pride and connection for people to their names.
My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about one Polish holiday that he and his family celebrated when he was younger. This is his account:
“In Poland, there’s a tradition called Imieniny, which means Name Day. Just like how we celebrate birthdays here, uh it’s like a special day for everyone—but primarily kids and young people—and it’s just like a day where you’ll get chocolates and small gifts. The gifts are really cheap stuff from your family. Because even though you celebrate birthdays too, they’re not like, quite as big of a hullabaloo as they are here. And it’s just like, a nice day that is about you. So every traditional Polish name—and they’re constantly adding new ones, once they become popular—they get added to the calendar, so if you buy a calendar in Poland, each day has names at the bottom of each day. You get candy and sweets, and maybe a small toy. The gifts aren’t as big or expensive as the ones you might get on your birthday. So one year, just like I usually would, I got nice boxes of chocolate, and my mom cooked my favorite traditional Polish dish: kashanka, which is basically sausage. As I got older, we kind of stopped celebrating Imieniny in my family.”
Analysis: My informant’s description of this particular holiday seemed to bring back fond memories for him. As he said, it was a special day during the year that was “about him.” He got to enjoy special attention and receive gifts from loved ones; in those ways, it is quite similar to a birthday. Yet, I think, this holiday was not only “about him,” but also about Polish pride on a larger scale. This holiday celebrates people with traditional Polish names, thereby commemorating their historic ties to Poland. People have to consult Polish calendars if they want to find their name day, and then they will only find their name if it is considered to be traditionally Polish. For an immigrant family in America, Imieniny might have induced a sense of nostalgia; they were able to spend a day commemorating not only one member of their household, but also the culture that they came from. I would imagine that this kind of celebration would be comforting to immigrants who may feel homesick from time to time, and who value the ties they have to the country they were born in—and where most of their family still resides (as is the case for my informant’s family).