What is this "Name Day" Tradition in Spain?
Have you ever had a Spaniard inform you that today is special because “es el día de mi santo,” (which literally means “it’s my saint’s day”) or, the translation I hear most often into English, “it’s my name day”? While this is a foreign concept to most of us who grew up in the US, Spain and many other European countries have a long tradition of observing the Roman Catholic and/or Greek Orthodox calendar of saints.
Here in Spain, families tend to choose names for their children that come from the Bible or are otherwise connected with history (read more about common names from Spanish history here). Thus, they have a special day dedicated to each of these names (sometimes with more than one day for the most popular ones) and this day is almost like a secondary birthday for everyone with this name. Historically, many Spaniards would name their child after the saint whose day the child was born on (resulting in a birthday-saint’s day combination) but today that tradition is not so popular and it more common to have a saint’s day that does not fall on your birthday.
How are “name days” celebrated?
Let’s take today for example—May 15th is the day of Saint Isidro and so everyone named Isidro (as well as some variations) will be congratulated by friends and family, sometimes brought small gifts, and often treated to a favorite meal or some other expression of a celebration.
Historically, name days were even more important than birthdays but this trend seems to be dying down. Interestingly enough, I found some great insights into the history and celebration of “name days” on this blog, but it’s written by someone from Slovakia so you can see the similarities and differences to the experience here in Spain.
Some saints’ days are also local or national holidays, such as Día de San Jordí (St. George), which is celebrated on April 23rd in Catalonia, and Día de San Juan (St. John), which is popularly celebrated on June 24th in a variety of Spanish towns, especially on the beach where bonfires and a midnight dip in the water is involved.
But how do you even know when it’s your saint’s day!?
Honestly, this has always been my fascination with “name days!” Sure, it’s not too difficult to remember YOUR special day, but it seems that everyone here in Spain is aware of ALL of their friends’ and family members’ saints’ days. Turns out, it’s not that Spaniards have incredibly impressive powers of the memory; rather, most calendars and agendas will include the name of the saint whose feast day is being observed right there next to the number of each date.
My personal agenda only lists one name on most days, but sometimes you can find two, three, or even four. As previously mentioned, Spain is not the only country that celebrates name days and so the names you will find on calendars here in Spain are different than the ones you will find in other countries. This makes sense, as we have different common names in each language but also because, in the modern age, calendars are adapting to the addition of more names that are not saints. I believe it is for this reason that Spaniards will translate the idea to their “name day”—not all names come from saints, but that is where the tradition started.
Curious when your name day would be? You can check out this list of the Spanish “name days,” looking for the ‘equivalent’ of your name or check out this page that was developed for curious Americans whose often-not-religious-at-all names aren’t commonly found on lists that derive from Roman Catholic and/or Greek Orthodox calendar of saints.