The story of Russian name-days
Updated: Jan 29
The viewers who came to see Three Sisters by Chekhov at the Vaudeville Theatre in London this summer may have found something puzzling in the very first act. There was a celebration of Irina’s name-day, and whole-hearted it was, with people expressing their most sincere wishes and bringing her presents. So much so that it would remind most of us of a birthday celebration.
Celebrating a name-day is uncommon in the UK so English-speaking theatre-goers who came to watch this play with English subtitles may have wondered what the special occasion was about.
As a matter of fact, in pre-Communist Russia by tradition parents named their newborn baby after a saint whose feast day it was. And you could only christen your child after a saint. This is still true for the Russian Orthodox Church today: you can name your child whichever name you want, but you can only christen someone after a saint. For example, if you name your daughter Polina, there is no Saint Polina so in the Russian Orthodox Church she would be christened Apollinaria, after Saint Apollinaria.
The custom to name your child after a saint was abolished by the Soviets, of course, as were most things religious. Scientific atheism was a subject included in the standard curriculum. This even somewhat messed up the Russian language. On her name day Chekhov’s Irina was именинница – a girl celebrating her name-day. In the Soviet times именинница acquired a new use: a birthday girl. True as it may have been in the olden days to celebrate your birthday and your name day on the same day, with the naming tradition lost, the word was no longer used correctly.
In modern Russia it’s quite popular to celebrate your name day, often referred to as Angel’s day (День ангела). The link to the angel comes from the saint you are named after, who is supposed to guard you like your angel until you die. We may not be as lucky as the Queen of the United Kingdom to have two birthdays, but we may be fortunate to have two special days: a birthday and a name-day.
Three Sisters performed by the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg
[Tip: If you are researching your family tree and find a Russian connection, we will be more than happy to translate old Russian documents into English for you; give us a call on 0207 0436940 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.]