You have a what day? The question I have encountered from locals and expatriates innumerous times throughout a decade while living and working in Shanghai, China and now, in Canada. To a person who has grown up celebrating her Name Day every year, as well as that of my mom, dad, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and classmates, the puzzling look of people at first made me feel uncomfortable, almost apologetic, as if I’ve made up a story and now can’t proceed convincingly with my own lies. To most people, the idea of celebrating someone’s name appears amusing, if not flat-out weird. For me, it is a beautiful tradition that I took for granted while living in my home country, Latvia, and one of the things I still miss now.
Latvia is one of a few countries in Europe that has a tradition of celebrating Name Days. The tradition started as part of the Christian church calendar, commemorating the saints and angels, then evolved into a celebration of those people who were named after a saint, and eventually, became a celebration of all people’s names. Nowadays, however, the tradition in Latvia has no connection with Christianity. There are one to five names assigned to each day of the year. The dates and names can’t be interchanged. The only alterations allowed in the calendar are addition of new names or removal of names unused for a long time after approval of a Calendar Names Commission. The celebration for all the names that are too rare to be included in the calendar, has a designated Name Day of May 22. Or, if a year has an extra day in February, they can also choose to celebrate on February 29.
Name Day is a big deal in Latvia! All the regular calendars, agendas, diaries and notebooks are printed showing names for each date. Radio stations at the beginning of the morning news, broadcast whose Name Days are being celebrated today. The biggest newspapers, next to their date of issue, print the names related to the date. You literally can’t escape being informed or congratulated. It’s like a birthday, but in some ways even better. Your name is mentioned everywhere. Radio hosts send greetings to you, your cell phone plan provider sends a text greeting, networking sites send an e-mail greeting, friends and relatives call to congratulate you the whole day, co-workers bring flowers, you most probably buy sweets or chocolates to bring to the office as a treat. Kids bring sweets to school for their classmates. Your closest family has a cake waiting for you to be enjoyed with them and anybody else who might turn up at your doorstep. Yes, the unwritten rule of a Name Day celebration in Latvia is that people are free to come over without an invitation (that rule wouldn’t work for birthdays—showing up without an invitation is considered rude). The anticipation and surprises follow you throughout the day, and it makes you feel oh, so special! Well, special in many ways. If you have a very common name, like me, it also might bring laughter and experiences you will remember for a lifetime.
A sunny May afternoon is my Name Day. Classes in my French Lycee just finished. I was strolling with a small group of friends carrying beautiful flowers in our hands through downtown when a tourist stopped us and asked why are there so many girls with flowers on the streets today. We casually explained that it was a Name Day for all girls named Inese. He looked at us curiously surprised and then suspicious, as if we were joking—after all, three of us were holding flowers. Yes, we all were named Inese, we added. Somehow the name must have been very popular in seventies and eighties, when most Ineses were born. The situation started to look more and more unbelievable to him and comic to us. He was 100 percent sure we were joking, until we pulled out our student cards giggling to prove him wrong. He left probably thinking that half the population in Riga, is named Inese and we reconfirmed once again what we knew already—our name is very popular, to say the least. I love my name, I carry it with dignity and I wouldn’t have wanted my parents to name me any differently. But I promised myself, if I ever have kids, I will take my experience (of being one of seven Ineses in a class) in account and pick their names carefully.
Years passed and I graduated with a degree in Sinology and moved to Shanghai, as far from Name Days, as it gets. My parents lovingly were sending and still keep sending me a Latvian calendar every year, so I don’t miss the Name Days of our close friends and family. Sadly, for a period of time, this was almost the only tangible reminder of this tradition. I missed waking up in the morning knowing that my parents had picked flowers from our garden for me already. I missed receiving calls from friends and cousins. I missed hugs and smooches on cheeks from my classmates. I missed impromptu celebrations we had at the university canteen during our lunch break. I really, really missed being Inese.
During my years in Shanghai, I had only a few fellow Latvian friends, and the celebrations were small, quiet and sometimes a Name Day went by almost unnoticed amidst busy work schedules. Now in Canada, I have a very enthusiastic husband, who ensures the celebration is not forgotten, flowers are always waiting for me and dinner is always a surprise. After all, technically it’s his Name Day, as well. Being a Canadian-based Chinese, he usually goes by his English name, Eric, to avoid misspellings and confusions. Call it a funny coincidence, but next to my name on May 18 on the calendar, there is Eric.
We also made sure, our year-and-a-half old son Niklaav wouldn’t be left out, so we picked his name with this tradition in mind. Being a tri-cultural family, sometimes the otherwise straightforward decisions can turn into a delicate balancing act among cultures. Luckily, my husband is very supportive and encouraging in preserving my Latvian heritage and passing it on to our son. So after contemplating baby names, we both decided in favor of the least represented culture in our surroundings to build a solid foundation for our son to develop his interest and understanding of Latvian culture. Where I once felt uncomfortable, now I feel proud and happy to have a day in the year just for me, simply because my name is Inese. And my son will also have his day, just because his name is Niklaav. And because our names are given to us by our parents, Name Day is so much more important and special.