If you’re looking for an excuse to celebrate the next time you’re traveling in Europe, make sure to time your visit with your name day.
“[A] name day is bigger than a birthday,” Aija Tamsone informed me as she showed me around her native city of Riga. Coincidentally, and luckily for me, “Erik Day” in Latvia was in just a couple of days—something she remembered off the top of her head because it also happened to be the name day for Ines, her daughter (Latvian calendars often include up to four names each day).
“Then we’ll have to celebrate,” I said. We went to her home in Mežaparks, the green “forest park” district of the city, where a small shindig was already under way. The gathering of friends and family may have been unrelated to my name day, but at least I had a culturally inspired reason to be festive.
In Latvia, and several other European nations, name days are kind of like a second birthday, in which receiving happy wishes—and sometimes gifts—are in order if you share the moniker specified on the calendar. The origin of the custom can be traced to the Catholic calendar of saints, which dictated when feasts would be held to venerate a particular saint.
These days, the tradition is a lot more secular, and observed with varying levels of enthusiasm. Much like a birthday, you don’t necessarily have to celebrate on your actual name day; the closest weekend works just fine in a pinch.
It was with this in mind that I toasted my new Latvian friends—“Priekā!”—with a shot of vodka as we sat on the Tamsones’ backyard deck that Friday, two days prior to Erik and Ines Day. It was the first drink of many that evening, interspersed between samplings of food and bursts of laughter as Aija’s husband Ivars reminisced about the old days.
At one point, the revelry included an inebriated sing-along of “Bēdas Manu Lielu Bēdu” (“Sorrow, My Big Sorrow”), a traditional Latvian folk number that everyone remembered from childhood—everyone but me, of course. But I didn’t feel like an outsider; my name day was a great icebreaker.
Name Day Outside Latvia
However, name day celebrations don’t take the same form everywhere. To suss out the differences, I asked folks from other name day-observing countries to tell me about the rituals they grew up with, and got varied responses:
In Slovakia, name days are much less important than birthdays, at least according to Zuzana Jedinakova. “We visit each other and bring some small gift—chocolate, a bottle of wine, or alcohol. For children, we buy toys and sweets. Grandparents usually give money. But in each family it’s individual,” she said. “Some people celebrate it more, some less… My friends from Greece and Cyprus celebrate name days, [but] they just send an SMS or call each other.”
The tradition may be on the wane elsewhere as well. “It’s not as big as it used to be,” said my Croatian friend J.P. Stanišić. “Now, if celebrated at all [in Croatia], it might be just a little party with close family, but nothing big,” he said. “The only celebrations would be if you were maybe named after a major saint or if a bunch of people in the same family were named after one saint.”
“For the women, it is usually easy,” Stanišić added. “Most are named Marija.”
Over in Poland, Anna Przyłuska says name days are quite popular. “Sometimes people celebrate it in place of birthday—usually older people not willing to tell how old they are! Of course, there are also people not celebrating the name day at all.”
My friend Peppe Hanzon, who hails from Svenljunga, Sweden, reported that “mostly people call and say, ‘Hey, it’s your name day! What’s up?’ and that’s it.” Some people don’t bother at all about name days, he continued. “Birthdays are much bigger. But in my case, my name day is on my birthday.”
Having a name day on or close to a birthday isn’t unheard of, as I learned from one of my new acquaintances at the party in Latvia. One woman had a birthday on the 11th of June, and a name day on the 12th. “Some parents do that on purpose,” she told me. “Only one gift!”
Gifts or no gifts, whether or not you need a reason to celebrate when traveling in parts of Europe, make sure you check the name day calendar for the country you’ll be visiting anyway (name days vary from country to country). Then it’s up to you as to how little or how festive you want to get—but, at the very least, you can try to use it as an excuse of entitlement to a small favor or a free drink from a bartender.
But what if your name is too unique? In some European countries, such as Germany and Poland, the name you can give a baby is regulated by the government, so there isn’t that issue—thus no name day for you. But don’t worry. In Latvia, the day for names not listed on any other date is May 22.
My apologies if that is already your birthday, giving you no reason for bonus gifts. If that’s the case, you can always celebrate your half-birthday (November 20 or 22, depending on how you slice it) abroad.