Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
by Andrew Stern
Few people consider November 30th, the Feast of St. Andrew, to be a highpoint of the holiday season. Since the Middle Ages, however, the feast has had particular significance for people who share the saint’s name. In fact, for centuries every traditional name in Europe had a particular “nameday” corresponding to the feast day of the saint of that name (similar celebrations, known as “onomásticas” take place in many Latin American countries). Thus, on November 30th, “Andrews” would celebrate the feast of St. Andrew, while their friends and families would offer them good wishes and even gifts. Particularly in predominantly Catholic or Orthodox countries, namedays often became more important than birthdays, since everyone knew the feast day of an individual’s patron saint (in fact, in many European countries one can still purchase calendars with lists of namedays), while relatively few people knew the date of his/her birth.
The celebration of namedays has declined in prominence in recent decades, especially in Western Europe, yet it was an important practice at the peak of European immigration to the United States in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Therefore, it is surprising that there is so little evidence of nameday celebrations among immigrant communities in the U.S. Studies of immigrant religions in the U.S. chronicle the many traditions that survived the process of transplantation, but of course there are others that did not, and namedays seem to be a prime example. Why is it that this tradition failed to take root in the U.S.? Given the zeal with which American capitalism seizes on any religious tradition that can be commodified and marketed (witness the Our Lady of Guadalupe candles for sale in the Hispanic aisle of virtually every supermarket), why is there virtually no trace of nameday calendars, cards, or other merchandise produced in the U.S.? Feast day celebrations of saints important to entire nations survived, so were nameday celebrations too individualistic? Answers to these questions, and similar questions regarding other religious practices that vanished in the US, may provide valuable insights on the immigrant experience.
Nameday celebrations never really caught on in the U.S., but technology may provide a way to revive the tradition. The website namedaycalendar.com, for example, allows one to view the namedays celebrated on any given day in eighteen different European countries. There is also a distinctly American nameday calendar, published since 1982 and available online at americannamedaycalendar.com. This calendar blends the religious roots of namedays with American civil religion. Thus, people named Paul can celebrate their nameday on the feast of St. Paul or on the anniversary of the birth of Paul Revere. Similarly, the calendar assigns the name “Irving” to May 11th, since that was the birthday of Irving Berlin, whom the calendar honors as the author of “God Bless America.” Although namedays are becoming more secular events even in those European countries where they are still widely celebrated, the addition of new “saints” to the calendar seems to be an American phenomenon. Perhaps in a few years the calendar will include namedays for “Barack” (August 4), “Beyoncé” (September 4), and “LeBron” (December 30).
Immigrant religions in the U.S. are nothing if not resourceful. The internet may provide a way to maintain traditional practices, but there are also low-tech solutions. This year on November 30th I will receive, as I have each year for as far back as I can remember, a Happy Birthday card from my Hungarian relatives with “Birthday” meticulously scratched out and “Nameday” written in its place.