Names were given to people from the beginning of time and in all cultures. A person’s name accompanies himself or herself for his/her entire life and is the word that he or she will probably hear the most times throughout the course of his / her existence. All names, at one ti.me, had a lexical meaning but with the passage of time, the knowledge of what the name originally signified became blurred or even erased. Every name carried with it some type of prediction, message, blessing or desire that the parents wished upon the bearer of the name. Most frequently, these wishes were that the child be protected by higher powers. Already in ancient times the act of conferring a name was important for both parent and child and various customs arose connected to this event.
At the time Poland accepted Christianity, that is up until the tenth (10th) century, only names purely Slavic in origin were in use. Scholars have discovered and listed approximately six hundred (600) names of this type. Some of them still exist and are used today. The Slavic names contain many elements which have concrete meaning and wishes for their bearers. A man named Boles1aw, Chwalisław, Mirosław, Sławomir, Unis law, or Wiecesław was destined for glory; Cieszymir and Radomir for respect; Bronisław, Borzywoj, Kazimir , Mściwoj, Swiętopełk, and Wojciech for glory in battle and Lubom for kindness. As in other cultures, we also find Slavic names which contain religious elements (Bog; -bóg ; Trzeb -) such as Bogdan, Bogurad, Bożydar, Trzebiesław, and Trzebiewit. Some “negative” names whose purpose was to repel demons and divert their attention from a newborn child were Niemir, Nierad, Biezdar, and Męcimir. A name was given to a child by its father or a tribal priest. Between the ages of seven to ten, boys were given a new “man’s” name during a ceremony called postrzyżny, a male rite of passage involving ceremonial hair clipping.
After Christianity arrived on Polish territory, the Slavic names began to be gradually replaced by names connected to the Catholic church and Christian teaching. This was a very slow process and the Slavic names were still very much in general use in the 16th century. The names connected to Christian culture were, at first, largely biblical, and can be divided into New Testament and Old Testament names. Old Testament names that enjoyed popularity in Poland included Adam, Dawid, Michał, Ewa, Sara, and Jakub. They were not great in number, however, and other names popular in other cultures such as Isaak, Jeremi, Rebeka, or Rut were never in common use in Poland. New Testament names, for the most part, were adopted in the entire Christian world including, of course, Poland. Names in this category included Andrzej, Bartłomiej, Filip, Jan , Łukasz, Maciej, Marek, Mateusz, Pawel, Piotr, Szymon, Szczepan, Tadeusz, and Tymoteu sz. The New Testament name Maria was extremely seldom used in medieval times as it was felt that its use should only be for the Virgin Mary. A superstition prevailed that the use of the name of the Mother of God was a sacrilege. In Poland, alternative similar names were used, the most common being Marianna / Maryanna, plus the less common Maryna and Masza. Changes regarding the use of the name began to be noticed at the time of the Reformation, initially exclusively among Protestants. Catholics approved the use of the name Maria only in the 18th century and initially only in urban areas. The avoidance of Maria in favor of the variant names persisted in rural areas well into the 20th century.
Christian culture brought about a new wave of names, that is the names of saints and martyrs. Martyrs were depicted to the faithful as role models and their virtues were to impart grace upon the child baptized with their names. Giving the name of a saint to a child also placed the child under that saint’s protection. It was believed that the saint would watch over the child for his or her entire life. The saints and martyr’s names which enjoyed the greatest popularity in the medieval period were Eustachy, Sebastian, Walenty, Wawrzyniec, Cecylia, Katarzyna, Łucja , Małgorzata, and Zofia.
Some children, according to custom, were given the name that the calendar “brought” them. Each day of the year had a saint whose day it was. A child born on that day was given the name of that saint. This was not obligatory, and if a child was born on a day of a little-known saint, parents usually Chose another, more well-known saint whose day was close to the birth date. However, the parents had to choose a day that had not yet gone by. Poles and some other cultures celebrate their saints’ day rather than their birthday, and contemporary Polish calendars still list the name of the saint for every day of the year. The priest also exercised some influence over the choice of a name when parents asked for advice. It also happened that a priest would give a child a name at baptism totally against the will of the parents. In the case of children born out of wedlock, certain ardent pastors, in an attempt to stigmatize, gave the child a rare or strange name on purpose. These occurrences were rare but did happen.
The nobility was in general not amenable to the practice of giving a child the name of the saint on whose day the child was born. It was preferred to give children names which were in keeping with family traditions This is why certain names predominate generation after generation in magnate and aristocratic families – Tomasz in the Zamoyski clan, Rafał in the Leszczyński family, and a multitude of men named Stanislaw in the Kostka fam ily. With the passage of time, parents somewhat broke these traditions and began naming children in accordance with their own taste and wishes, and at times, utilized names taken from works of literature or those that were perceived as beautiful and worthy in the public opinion of the era.
Regional devotions to specific saints also influenced name choices. Thus, we encountered many Wojciechs in the Wielkopolska region and men named Kazimierz in Lithuania. The celebration of a certain saints feast day with processions and elaborate religious rites in a given parish virtually guaranteed that the name would be popular and in widespread use. We can also observe the influence of nearby convents and monasteries which urged the use of the name of the saint after which they were named. For example, a town or village in close proximity to a Jesuit monastery would virtually guarantee an abundance of children named Ignacy, Franciszek, and Ksawery. The Franciscan Order favored the names Franciszek and Antoni, while the Benedictines obviously looked with favor on the name Benedykt.
The influence in medieval times of colonists from German-speaking lands who settled on Polish soil is also observable in naming patterns. The names frequently took on Polonized forms in short order, resulting in Oskar, Adelajda, Kunegunda, Lukarta, Matylda, Biernat (a variant of Bernhard) , Dietrzych (a variant of Dietrich) and Hendrzych (a variant of Heinrich).
Naming children was frequently accompanied by various rituals and customs, some of which are still practiced today. Others have been erased by the sands of time. For example, in some regions the first male child was given his father’s name, the first female, the mother’s name. In some, the grandparents names were first in line followed by the parents: Names of other relatives whose memory was preserved by the family were also used. This naming pattern tradition was so strong in some regions that neither the priest nor the date on which a child was born had any influence on name choices. Twins were usually named Adam and Ewa or Piotr and Paweł. In some families the ties to a certain saint were so strong multiple children in a family were given the same name to increase the degree of care with which that saint would watch over the family.
A great deal of attention was also paid to the choice of godparents as it was believed that the child would inherit some of their character traits. It was customary to choose godparents from the family’s group of relatives and friends and always individuals from the same social class. At times parents would ask people from a higher social class to serve as godparents thus hoping to insure the child’s future good fortune. In other instances, if a family had a series of children who died in infancy or childhood, then the village beggars were asked to serve in this capacity as it was thought that they would reverse the family’s bad luck.
Naming patterns over the ages, as mentioned previously, were influenced by societal trends. There were times when the most popular names were those of Polish kings and queens, other historical figures or characters in popular novels. There were distinct differences regarding the popularity of names between villages and urban areas and between nobles and peasants. Naming trends changed quite rapidly in times gone by just as they do today. Some names have a rebirth and renaissance. A clear example of this coming full circle are the traditional Slavic names. This group of names virtually disappeared at the end of the 16th century, they regained popularity in the 18th century, were gone again in the 19th century, only to revive themselves at the end of the 20th century. The pool of names in use frequently reflects, to a degree, social and cultural changes that were prevalent in distinct historical periods.
For our Christian ancestors, the baptism and conferring of a name on a child were important life events and needed to be celebrated accordingly. Written sources indicate that noisy large celebrations at naming ceremonies extend to Slavic times. In the time of the ancient Slavs, a pregnant woman was basically isolated from the rest of the community and was prohibited from engaging in any farm work. Relatives and neighbors were obliged to assist her„ They frequently brought food, drink, and gifts that gradually accumulated. As the pregnancy advanced, these visits turned into lively social occasions, and since Poles like feasting and reveling, the custom continued until after the birth of the child. The magnificence and sumptuousness of the celebration, of course, was dependent on the income level and social status of the family. It was obligatory to raise toasts to the newborn as well as the parents, godparents, the child’s patron saint, to fellow kinsmen, as well as the priest who performed the ceremony. The most celebrated baptism was that of the firstborn son, and it was somewhat different in nature from all others. City dwellers and the nobility celebrated baptisms which gradually became inordinately excessive to the point that city officials in Kraków passed laws regarding how these parties and celebrations were to be organized, how many people could be invited, etc., and banned the use of silk blankets, caps and pillows.
A person’s saint’s day (imieniny) was celebrated once a year. Name day celebrations were initially both religious and secular. The religious aspect emphasized thanking the patron saint for his or her graces and protection and a plea for continued intercession. The secular aspect of the celebration was akin to an American-style birthday party. Guests were obliged to bring a small gift. The person celebrating the names day provided food and drink for the guests. Each guest had to be prepared to give a speech extolling the virtues of the celebrant as well as including a few words about the patron saint. Aside from these oratorical presentations, there was a custom called “binding.” Guests tied ribbons, strings, bells or kerchiefs on the celebrant as a sign of respect and friendship. As each person “tied” the celebrant, the gift was presented at this juncture. This custom was practiced by the wealthier classes. The peasants did not observe this custom.
Name day celebrations continue in Poland to the present time. On this day, we can expect visits from friends and family bearing small gifts, tokens of their friendship. The speech giving and binding ceremonies are now a thing of the past and are no longer practiced. Poles place greater emphasis on their name day than on birthdays, the exception being the areas of the former German partition. Celebration of name days is also important in the Czech Republic, Greece, Latvia, Russia, Sweden, and Hungary.The link below article ” List of saints days according to different calendars” contains contains a nearly complete list of saints and the blessed listing their years of death and the day and month of each saints day. You can check what day your saint’s day falls on.
Liturgical calendars changed somewhat over the course of time and were influenced as well by local custom. We can check old calendars to see when our ancestors celebrated their name day in the link below – “List of saints days according to different calendars”. There is a collection of old calendars spanning the period 1747-1935.
Saints are individuals who, by the way they lived their lives, soared to the limit of their humanity. They gave witness to a deep faith and devotion. Among them were simple people who exhibited a greatness of the heart and extreme dedication. Also among them were famous and distinguished thinkers, reformers, social activists, artists, and even politicians. Their lifestyles are no longer visible in today’s modern world, but the values for which they stood are timeless. Our faith in the intercession of the saints is a trust that they can serve as mediators between ourselves and God and help us in our daily lives.
A patron saint can achieve that status in two ways. One is a democratic process when the saint is chosen by the people. The other is “official” done by papal decree. Although they have left this earth, they are not at rest because those that view them as patrons unceasingly request their intercession.
Our personal patron saint is the saint whose name we bear. At the moment of our baptism we were placed under his or her protection, whether our parents chose the name based on the saint’s virtue or otherwise. We can all chose a patron saint as well, whose life we value and via prayer can obtain his or her favor or goodwill. Some of us make this choice “official” when we choose our confirmation name. We implore certain saints in specific life situations.
The most busy saint is more than likely St. Anthony of Padua, to whom we turn when we lose something—usually, our keys! The old Polish custom requires us to say three times, “Swiety Antoni, niechaj bedzie Twoja chluba, niech sie znajdzie moja zguba.” In hopeless situations, we turn to St. Jude Thaddeus. There is a whole battery of heavenly “health services” as well. St. Cosmas and St. Damien are the patron saints of doctors, surgeons, and pharmacists. St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, is called upon to protect us from rabies. The martyr St. Apolonia has taken under her wings all that suffer from toothaches. St. Roch, St. Valentine, and St. Sebastian protect us from plagues and infection. The not-so-popular and quite unknown Saint Bewignat is the patron of the rapid healing of wounds. When we have problems with our eyes, we pray to St. Lucy.
Headaches are taken care of by St. Otilia, and St. Leonard prevents us from being overweight. Those who are not “morning people” and have difficulty functioning in the morning should pray to St. Vitus. St. Matthew, prior to being named a saint, was a customs officer, and as such, he is the patron of that segment of the workforce. St. Eligius watches over goldsmiths and St. Crispin over shoemakers. He distributed shoes that he made himself to the poor. St. Spiridon, a shepherd who still tended to his flock even after he was made a bishop, is fittingly the patron saint of shepherds. St. Zita is the patroness of cleaning ladies who herself was a servant for 48 years. St. Francis (Salesian) is the patron of newspaper reporters, and St. Dominic Savio helps to insure that students pass their exams.
Countries have also adopted patron saints as well as individual cities and villages. St. Adalbert is Poland’s patron saint. In Lithuania, it is St. Casimir; in the Czech Republic, John Nepomucen; and in England, St. George. The Germans chose St. Boniface, the Irish St. Patrick, and the Norwegians St. Olaf. As the world changes, so do the “duties” of the saints. St. Isadore was and is the patron of the Croatian city of Cres but now he is also considered the patron of computer programmers and internet users. St, Isadore held a doctorate and wrote many treatises and works, including the precursor of the modern encyclopedia. He systemized the bank of the world’s knowledge at the time, an early ancestor of today’s database.
In 1962-1965, the Vatican Council examined the lives of many saints in the Catholic calendar. The result of these studies was the “demotion” of nearly 200 saints from the church calendar by Pope Paul VI. The church, in the absence of concrete factual information, now treats the accounts of the lives of these saints as legends. Among those losing their official saint status were Barbara, Christopher, Paul, Valentine, John, George, and Nicholas. But we still give children gifts on St. Nicholas Day, and miners still pray to St. Barbara. The Vatican ultimately sanctioned devotions to these “non-saints” among the faithful.
We can spend hours naming all the saints. Practically every aspect of life is covered by a saint’s protection, and there are several thousand saints. Their portraits and images can be found in every church and roadside chapel. They are painted on cloth and wood, carved in stone and sculpted in wood. The lives of the saints have served as an inspiration for both the great artists of our times as well as the unknown creators of folk art. Hagiographic iconography holds a special place in the art world and familiarizing ourselves with these works of art draws us to a closer relationship with the saint and his or her message.
In conclusion, the celebration of name days is an ancient Polish tradition which is rapidly disappearing in Polish communities abroad. Reviving this tradition would have a positive influence in fortiffing our Slavic and Polish identity and provide the opportunity to spend quality time with our friends and family and eating the foods we knew in our youth.
In the list below, you can check whether our ancestors received the name they “brought” or when they celebrated their name day. All names and abbreviations are faithful reproductions of the record in individual calendars. However, it should be taken into account that the liturgical calendars changed from time to time and were influenced by local cults.
List of saints days according to different calendars based on the following calendars:
1747 – KALENDARZ POLSKY, i RUSKY, przez Andrzeia Dominika Lipiewicza wyrachowany, w Poznaniu w Drukarni Akademickiey wydany.
1869 – Przewodnik Warszawski informacyjno adresowy z dołączeniem kalendarza i taryf domów m. Warszawy i przedmieścia Pragi, ułożony i wydany przez Wiktora Dzierżanowskiego, Warszawa.
1899 – Skarb Rodziny czyli Kalendarz dla rodzin Chrześcijańskich na rok 1898. Nakładem J. Steinbrenera właściciela zakładu katolickich wydawnictw i drukarni w Wintenbergu
1901 – JEZUS, MARYA JÓZEF, Książka do Nabożeństwa wydał X.M. Godlewski Profesor Seminaryum Warszawskiego, wydanie nowe przejrzane przez liczne grono kapłanów, Warszawa.
1924 – GRUDZIADZKI KALENDARZ MARIAŃSKI, drukiem i nakładem Zakładów Graficznych Wiktora Kulerskiego (Gazeta Grudziądzka)
1835 – Kalendarz Kościelny dla Parfji Chełmińskiej na rok Pański 1935, Pelplin 1934
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