Name Day: What It Is & How to Celebrate

The name we received from our parents may be the most valuable possession we have. It discerns us from others, and it shapes our personalities and individuality. In many cultures and countries around the world, there is a celebration of someone’s name every day of the year. Many cultures call this celebration a Name Day.

happy name day greeting

The best thing about name days is that you don’t need to know your friend’s birthday to send them a greeting, you just need their name. And, while birthdays are certainly the most popular reason to celebrate and party in America, name days are just as important to many cultures around the world.

Is name day synonymous with birthday?

In short, the answer is no. However, there is so much more to the answer than a simple “yes or no.” Birthdays are just that, the day you were born. Your name day extends beyond and into more meaning than only you. You may share both days, but in many traditions, cultures and religions, your name day is more important than your birthday.

As a tradition in many countries in Europe and Latin America, people celebrate their name day once a year. This date is specific to your given name and the roots of that name. The tradition of celebrating this day flows back into Catholic and Orthodox countries since the Middle Ages and continues today. While those in North America don’t necessarily celebrate this day (other than an individual’s birthday), many cultures still hold this day in high regard.

Three name tags with different names, Renee's name day is celebrated on November 12th.

Celebrations of each name day are typically in commemoration of saints and martyrs of the Catholic church. For example, Sweden celebrates the name Karl¬†on January 28, which is the anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. In some countries, such as Poland, there are several days for one name. In that situation, it is usually the closest one after the person’s birthday. Many countries regard these celebrations to be even more important than an actual birthday, as the latter was seen as a pagan tradition.

Why do you need to know the difference?

This became a popular topic when George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, refers to the topic in his books and the resulting television series. While Martin does not give us a clear definition of what name days are, he does mention name days coincide with birthdays. Fans of the series have speculated after reading or watching it that a name day is the character’s birthday.

George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones meme reference to Happy Name Day

The Nameday is a custom in the society of the Seven Kingdoms. It is an annual celebration commemorating the naming of a person and serves to calculate his or her age. Babies are named the same day they are born. People receive presents from friends and family on their nameday. 

In Martin’s words, “Stupidly, Jon argued. ‘I’ll be fifteen on my name day,’ he said. ‘Almost a man grown.'” (Found in The Song of Ice and Fire)

Martin gives other examples of people celebrating name days as similar to birthdays. One example is the continual mention of King Joffrey Baratheon’s name day celebration.

So, what are name days, and where do people celebrate them?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines name days as “the church feast day of the saint after whom one is named.”

Many cultures and countries around the world put precedence on celebrating these specific name days. Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Italy and Russia are just a handful of countries that honor this celebration.

Two ladies setting up for a celebration of name day.
Fanny Brate – A Day of Celebration

In many cultures, there are first names associated with the days of the year. The associations between the days and the names have arisen through many reasons, but primarily because the church held a festival for a saint of that name on that day. For instance, the church feast of Saint Michael was held on September 29, and as a result, the name day for Michael is on September 29. In some countries, one’s nameday is more important than one’s birthday, and sometimes gifts are given.

While each culture may have different traditions surrounding name days, they all have one thing in common: the name. So, whether your name is Michelle or Karl, you have two days a year that are special to only you! While your birthday is indeed special, your name day carries just as much significance.

So, the next time you don’t know someone’s birthday, look up their name day and give them a cheerful message or gift instead. Try a new name tag or a personalized name plate with their name and their special date!