What’s a “fête du prénom”?

Today, July 25, is the Feast Day of St. James The Apostle. I prefer the appellation “James the Greater” but that is just my false ego getting the better of me.  

James and his brother John were part of a family fishing outfit on the Sea of Galilee. I imagine it was called, “Zebedee and Sons”. Jesus came along and busted up their business by successfully inviting the two brothers to join him as apostles. They were such ruffians that they were referred to as Boanerges by the gang. Although this is normally translated from the Greek as, “Sons of Thunder”, it is most likely a Galilean dialectal corruption of Hebrew bene reghesh “sons of rage”. Who knows, maybe Zebedee was ok with letting go of these two trouble makers.

Although the brothers James and John did soften after their years with Jesus, the Orden de Santiago (Order of Santiago or Order of St. James of the Sword) brought whole new levels of “thunder” to this Saint’s name. Patron Saint of Spain, the Orden de Santiago was a 12th century holy order of knights (like the Knights Templar), whose first mission was to protect Catholic pilgrims on the Camino_de_Santiago (Way of St. James) as they walked to the shrine of St. James whose remains are said to be in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia

Since I hope to bike or walk this path myself, it holds significance for me. In Islam, if one goes to Mecca on pilgrimage, you receive the title El-Hajj (Pilgrim) afterword. Catholicism has no such title but I will happily answer to “Pilgrim” if I ever make the trip!

After I finished my service in the Peace Corps, I lived in Cairo for 3 years in a Jesuit community with priests from Egypt, Syria, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. At Collège de la Sainte Famille, the house language was French and many of that community’s traditions were also French. The fête du prénom or “name day” was one particular custom that I brought home with me. When the first fête du prénom was celebrated, I assumed it was a biological birthday because I had never heard that phrase while learning French in Mali with the Peace Corps. I assumed the French say fête du prénom and West Africans say fête du anniversaire [sic]. I later figured it out my mistake.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 440px-fanny_brate-namnsdag.jpg
A Day of Celebration. A painting by Swedish artist Fanny Brate depicting preparations for a name day celebration. Oil on canvas, 1902.

In many Orthodox and Catholic countries, “name day” is a custom. It works like this. If your name is Fergus and the Feast of St. Fergus is March 30, then on that day, you are treated to something special. My Irish grandparents would say a rosary for you then treat you like a king for a day.

For the Jesuits in Egypt, this received more attention than a community members’ biological birthday. It was the one day we got cake after dinner! Now with a family of my own, biological birthdays receives lots of attention but our Saints’ Days get celebrated too.

In fact, this tradition goes into high gear during late July because half of my family saint days fall within a few days time. Between July 22-26, four of the 8 people that comprised our family for the past 10 years have Saints Days. 

July 22 Saint Mary Magdalene for my eldest, Lilly Magelena. Lilly also has a feast day for her first name (July 14 Saint Lily of the Mohawks) but Magelena always gets the most attention. 

July 25 Saint James the Apostle for me.

July 26 Saint Joaquin and Anne for Joaquin, my son and his two Godmothers, Anna, my mother in law (recently departed), and his Godmother Anne.

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