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FALQs: Name Day Celebrations in Sweden

The following is a guest post by Elin Hofverberg, a foreign law research consultant covering Scandinavian jurisdictions at the Law Library of Congress. Elin is a frequent contributor to In Custodia Legis on diverse topics, including The Masquerade King and the Regulation of Dancing in SwedenThe Trade Embargo Behind the Swedish Jokkmokk Sami Market250 Years of Press Freedom in Sweden, and the Swedish Detention Order Regarding Julian Assange.

Today, July 31, marks my name day, when girls named Elin or Helena are celebrated according to the Swedish calendar. I am often asked what a name day is, what the origin of the practice is, and who decides whose name day it is. Let’s find out!

1. What is a Name Day?

In the Swedish calendar, most dates have one or two names attached to them, so called namnsdagar (name days). The practice comes from the history of christening in Sweden. It was a way to move emphasis from one’s birthday, which was considered hedonic, to that of one’s name day. A day to celebrate the saint after whom the newborn had been named. Following the reformation, the calendar with religious names was supplemented with secular names.

Saint Bridget: Sta Brigida/ Ste. Brigitte, New York: Published by Currier & Ives, [between 1856 and 1907], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Saint Bridget: Sta Brigida/ Ste. Brigitte, New York: Published by Currier & Ives, [between 1856 and 1907], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Certain name days are still linked to the Christian traditions celebrated on that day, such as the Lucia day on December 13, marking the feast day of Saint Lucia, or St. Martin’s Day (Mårtengås [Mårten Goose]), when the people of Scania (Skåne) eat geese, or Tjugonda-Knut (Twenty Day Knut) on January 13 (the day when Christmas is said to dance out of Swedish homes, “Tjugonda Knut dansar julen ut”). Such dates only have one name assigned. Typically, however, most days have two different names designated – names that are generally related to each other either in meaning or in heritage. Let’s take Elin and Helena as an example. Elin is a Swedish form of the Greek name Helena and was also the name of a Saint from Skövde in the 1100s, known internationally as Saint Helena. But names can also be as diverse as Kevin and Roy who share a name day on September 7, linked only by their Celtic origin.

2. Is there a name for every day?

Almost, all but six dates have names attached to them. The six that do not are:

  • January 1 (New Year’s Day)
  • February 2 (Candlemass)
  • March 25 (the Annunciation, most commonly known in Sweden as Våffeldagen (a day to eat waffles))
  • June 24 (John the Baptist Day)
  • November 1 (All Saints Day)
  • December 25 (Christmas Day)

3. History, Practice and Common Usage

Although originating from the Saint Calendar, names such as Saint Helena (Elin) or the famous Saint Bridget of Sweden (October 7 marking the day of her canonization), also helped farmers remember when in the year to do certain things. For example, when to plant the Elin potato.

Name days are also used to reference a certain time of the year. For instance, the Fruntimmersveckan [Women’s Week] is the week starting on July 19, when Sara has her name day, and ending with Jacob on July 25, marking the only six continuous days that only women have name days. (In Finland, Women’s Week is seven days long and starts on July 18 with the name Riika).

The name days also have a history of being linked to weather. For instance, Women’s Week is said to be particularly rainy, while the weather on Anders’ name day, November 30, can predict the weather on Christmas. “Om Anders braskar, julen slaskar”, meaning if it’s cold on November 30 then Christmas will be mild and slushy, while if Anders is mild then Christmas will be cold.

4. Who Decides Which Names Go In the Calendar?

Between the years of 1747 and 1972, the Kungl. Vetenskapsakademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) had the exclusive right to print calendars and so had power over the name day list. Starting July 15, 1972 following a decision not to renew the exclusive right in 1969 anyone could print calendars with their own name day list. This caused confusion in the 1990s as alternative name day lists were used in different calendars. In 2001 it was decided that the name day tradition needed more official structure and a name list committee was set up. Thus today, it is the Namnlängdskommittén (Name List Committee) that decides which names are included and which names are removed from the list.

The Namnlängdskommittén is made up of representatives from Svenska Akademin (the Swedish Academy), Institutet för språk och folkminnen (the Institute for Language and Folklore), and Kungliga Vitterhetsakademin (the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities). While the Swedish Academy and the Royal Swedish Academy for Letters, History, and Antiquities are independent organizations, the Institute for Language and Folklore is a government agency. All three have all been assigned a general mandate by the Swedish government to advance the Swedish language. (Förordning (2007:1181) med instruktion för Institutet för språk och folkminnen).

5. What is the Standard for Inclusion?

Names included in the name list should show reverence for the cultural heritage as well as association with a living name usage. Meaning there should be a nexus between the name and local usage of that name. There is no minimum of persons who need to be named a particular name to be included on the list. Thus, names such as Tiburtius (April 14) are still on the list although only 44 persons use that name of which only seven use it as their first name).

6. What are Recent Changes Made to the Name Day List?

The most recent additions to the name day list were made in 2015. Starting next year (2018) two new names will be celebrated: Saga will share the name day med Siv, and Ronja will share a name day with Ida. Saga and Siv are both Norse gods, and Ronja and Ida are names made popular by characters in children’s books (Ronja Rövardotter [Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter] and Emil I Lönneberga [Emil of Lönneberga] authored by Astrid Lindgren).

7. Royal Name Days Designated as Flag Days

Certain name days are also designated in law (Förordning (1982:270) om allmänna flaggdagar [Regulation on Public Flag Days]) as flag days, that is days when the Swedish flag should be flown. These are the name days of the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf (on January 28), the Swedish Queen Silvia (August 8), and the Crown Princess Victoria (March 12).

8. Have Members of Parliament wanted to change the rules?

Yes, there have been several motions in the Swedish Parliament to move name days, remove names, or include new ones.  Children have even written to the Swedish Prime Minister asking to have a name day assigned, but to no avail as the Prime Minister does not have power to alter the list of name days.

9. Sad Your name Isn’t on the List? Don’t Fret!

Most Swedes who don’t have a name on the list celebrate their name on another day; for instance, persons with names such as Ellen, Elena, and Elina are likely celebrating theirs today. As of 2001, the Name Day Committee specifically lists names that are similar to the names on the list and could be celebrated on that name day.

You Can Celebrate in Finland and Norway too!

Sweden is not the only Nordic country celebrating name days. Finland and Norway celebrate name days too! As the original calendars in all three countries are based on the saints’ days the names are largely the same. For instance, today Elin and Eline celebrate in Norway, while Elena and Helena celebrate in Finland, marking local variations of the same name. However, there have also been additions that are different, especially in recent times. Be sure to look at the most current calendar for Sweden, Norway, and Finland when you plan the celebrations. Your name may change date!

Other Readings

If you are interested in the regulation of names around the world, you may enjoy reading Kelly’s blog on the banning of certain baby names in New Zealand, Laney’s on how many times you can change a name in Taiwan, or mine on Icelandic name laws.  Jenny’s post on German name laws is upcoming, so stay tuned!

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