When I first became Orthodox, I had no idea what a name day (also called saint day or feast day) was, let alone what I was supposed to do about it.
In fact, I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do with the saints in general. I mean, I knew they were good: good examples for us to follow, good stories to tell our kids and inspire them in the faith, and good to have around the house as icons. Other than that? Not a clue.
The Orthodox Church takes the “communion of the saints” really seriously. The book of Hebrews speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us and cheers us on in the faith, rooting for us as we run the race, following after Christ. These are the saints who have gone before us and who are now given the privilege of praying for and helping their brethren still on earth.
Orthodox Christians ask the saints to pray for us. Note that we do not pray to the saints, but rather ask them to pray for us. As a Protestant, when I would have a difficulty, I would ask my friends and family to pray for me. It was always so comforting to know that others were coming before God on my behalf.
Now, I also ask the saints to pray for me. Members of the Church, both past and present, support each other in the faith.
What is a Name Day?
When Orthodox Christians are baptized (or in the case of converts who were already baptized, when we are chrismated) we are given the name of a particular saint. If you already have the name of a saint (for example, my name is Sarah, who is a saint of the Old Testament), then that may be your saint name. Or, sometimes a priest or godparent may choose a saint name for you.
Orthodox Christians have a special relationship with the saint they are named after. They regularly ask that saint to pray for them. In our family, each night during Evening Prayers we ask for the prayers of each family member’s saint.
We also celebrate the feast day of our saint. Each saint in the Orthodox Church has a day of the year that is designated as their feast day.
Some of these feast days are fixed (i.e. the same date every year). For example, the feast day of St. Andrew the First Called–my oldest son’s patron saint– is always on November 30. Other feasts are moveable (i.e. they are on certain Sundays during the year and the date may change). For example, the Righteous Sarah’s feast day is on the Sunday of the Forefathers–the second Sunday before Christmas.
The feast day of a person’s saint is also known as their “name day.” A name day is a special day to an Orthodox Christian. In fact, in some cultures it is more important than a birthday. That’s all great, you say, but, how do you celebrate a name day?
And, how do you celebrate a name day when you are a busy parent just trying to keep your head above the water? From one busy parent to another, I understand. All of these ideas are simple and can be done (in most cases) with very little advance planning.
Celebrating a Name Day
There are a host of traditions for celebrating a name day, many of them cultural. Since our family does not come from an ethnic culture that is traditionally Orthodox (Greece or Russia, for example), we have borrowed from others. The following list is just a start and is certainly not comprehensive.
1. Go to Church
If your church has a service on the name day, try to attend. This will impress upon your children the very nature of a name day–that it is a religious holiday celebrating a holy saint.
2. Display the Icon
Make sure that the saint’s icon is prominently displayed in your icon corner that day. You can even have your child hold the icon during Morning and Evening Prayers while other family members venerate it. In our family we have a small stand on which we place an icon, a candle, and flowers. For the week surrounding any family member’s birthday, we place that saint’s icon on the “stand of honor.”
3. Read about the Saint
Find an account of the saint’s life. This could be in the Bible, the Synaxarion, or a children’s book. Ancient Faith Radio also has a podcast that tells the life of the Saint of the Day. Listen to it as a family.
4. Sing the Troparion for the Saint
Try to learn the troparion (hymn) of the saint. Sing it together during prayer time.
5. Have a Special Treat
Make a cake, cookies, or another special treat in honor of the name day. Let the person celebrating the name day choose the treat and have the first piece. Sing “God Grant You Many Years” as you cut it.
6. Prepare a Special Meal
In our family, we let the child celebrating the name day choose the evening meal. This has made for some interesting meals (oatmeal and pancakes once!), but it helps make the day special.
7. Talk with Godparents
Another fun tradition is to talk with your child’s godparents on their name day. I know one family who makes it a priority to call each of their godchildren on their name days. They catch up with those who live far off and remain a part of their lives.
Over the years, I have come to look forward to my children’s, my husband’s, and my name day.
I need to be reminded of these holy people who were just like me–broken and sinful. But, they chose to live their lives for the glory of God, and so God glorified them.
How do you celebrate name days?