Celebrating Name Days.
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We have so much to celebrate in our faith, so much to be thankful for, so much to give praise for, that it can be hard to know where to begin. If we don't celebrate though, we soon lose sight of what it is we have to be thankful for, (and what we need to have repentance for as well.) Our joyous faith can disappear into the duties of the day-to-day, and the secular tug of the workplace. Celebrate it or lose it, you might say.
Of course, every Mass is both a celebration and reparation. But the church also gives us feast days, seasons of celebration and seasons of penance. Set in between the great seasons of Christmas and Easter, and sprinkled throughout 'ordinary time' are smaller feasts - the feast days of the saints.
Celebrating feast days as name days brings this liturgical life of the church into the life of the family and helps build and strengthen the domestic church.
Celebrating name days marks in some special way the feast day of the saint whose name is used as a baptismal or confirmation name. Canon law specifies that each baptismal name should contain a saint's name. The custom of choosing a confirmation name is not as common as it seems to have been 20 or 30 years ago. In its place, you could choose a patron for whom you feel a special affinity.
The communion of saints is an invaluable resource to us, a source of intercession, help and inspiration. Every struggle we face is shared by a saint. Every trial we encounter has been fought and won before by one of our brothers or sisters in Christ. Each saint has a unique story, some particular strength that they can bring to your family.
In the children's minds, Celebrations means Food. After all, Feast Days wouldn't be Feast Days unless we were meant to feast and be jolly. So I plan a special meal, something that relates to the life of the saint.
For example, on the feast day of Saint Peter (the husband and resident technical guy), we had fresh fish, "Come and I will make you a fisher of men." I also stuck sparklers into a cake to symbolize the flames of the Holy Spirit. For the feast day of Saint Matthew there were coins hidden in the cake (with a dollar coin hidden in our Matthew's piece.) Matthew was a tax collector, and his gospel says "The Word of God is like treasure in Heaven"
Our Matthew is a quiet lad who keeps to himself and sometimes tends to be overlooked in the crowd. There's a lot going on in that head of his but it's not always easy to see what. It was his name saints feast day when he was about five that made me aware of the importance of these celebrations.
During the meal, to which we had invited a favorite uncle, we talked about Saint Matthew, about who he was, how he had met Jesus, the gospel he had written, where he traveled. We brought the Bible to the table, and Peter read from his Gospel. At the end of the meal we all said a special prayer to Saint Matthew, asking for his intercessions on our behalf to Our Lord. Throughout the meal Matthew just glowed. He was obviously thrilled that he was named for such a hero. I realized that he would look up to Saint Matthew all his life. This made me realize that of course the saints are our heroes. They are not just someone that we can pray to for help, or intimidating examples of holy people but real heroes who can inspire and instruct us.
We have the heroic examples of the apostles; who though originally simple fishermen were led by the Holy Spirit to build a new (world.) Then there were the early Christian martyrs who defied the Roman empire and clung to their faith. The Jesuit martyrs throughout history, most recently in El Salvador, who defied the government and spoke the truth, are true heroes too.
Celebration means Preparation, and it is important to prepare for these celebrations. We use all of Advent to prepare for Christmas and all of Lent to prepare for Easter in order to be whole-hearted in our anticipation of the feast days. Sometimes, the preparation can be fairly elaborate - you can invite friends and family to join, and plan a special menu including foods from the saint's native country or patronage country. Other times, when the date just sort of sneaks up on you... a quick cake and some imaginative decoration will make an impromptu party in no time.
Many saints have acquired 'symbols' over the years, objects and images that represent some part of their story, and are frequently shown in their portraits. A list of some common and uncommon saints and their symbols can be found here.
Collecting some theme-decorations and keeping them in a special place will help the preparation and the decorating. Some colored candles, streamers, symbols for the saints, and maybe some specially shaped cake pans, collected over the years, will really help putting together a name day celebration.
We have a banner. We decorate our homes for Christmas and Easter. Our churches are made beautiful year round for the greater glory of God, so why not something for feast days as well? I made a banner because I thought a special decoration reserved just for these special occasions would help make name days a stronger tradition. A banner doesn't have to be ornate or detailed. It's just a simple wall hanging. Our Saints Day banner shows a crown because the saints are crowned in Heaven, and flames for the Holy Spirit. In the center, I left a space for interchangeable symbols for each saint (between times the symbols are pinned on the back), and the words "Saints in Heaven, Pray for Us."
Celebration also means Teaching. Name days teach the children that they too, are special in the eyes of God and loved by both family and god. In celebrating the name saint, we also celebrate the life of the child. In a very significant way, our names not only define who we are, they define our existence. Name days celebrate both the feast day of the saint and the special place that child has in the communion of saints.
For the children, and I must confess for myself as well, the idea of having a patron saint in heaven interceding for me to Our Lord and watching out for me is a very comforting and sort of companionable idea. We each have a guardian angel of course, but to also have a patron saint who understands the difficulties of being human is a very special feeling. I have enjoyed watching the dawning of this understanding in my children's hearts and minds.
It is important not to forget to pray for the intercession of the saint you are celebrating. A Liturgy of the Hours or an old missal frequently have beautiful prayers to use, or you could make up your own. Encourage the 'name-child' to pray to the saint.
We all look forward to the next name day when the last one is finished. I try to think of ways to make each one even more meaningful and interesting for the family. Singing hymns, and going to mass that evening all seem like good possibilities.
At first celebrating name days may seem fairly frivolous, perhaps just an excuse for another birthday party. It seems to me that it really is an opportunity to enrich family life by threading it through with the strength of the communion of saints, and the liturgical life of Church.For the text of classic book on celebrating namedays 'My Name Day, Come for Dessert', click here.