A Brief History of Saint Days

So, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole this morning trying to figure out answers to what I thought were somewhat straightforward questions. First, when did people in various western European countries stop celebrating their Saints’ day – or name day, if you will – and second, how did the various reorganizations of the liturgical calendar affect name day celebrations?

I rather thought there would be plenty of information and resources to explore these questions, but I’m afraid I’ve merely found fragments.

The Catholic Church has celebrated feast days for important saints nearly since its inception. St. Martin of Tours, born in 316 in Sabaria (now Szombathely, Hungary) is thought to be the first saint – or at least the first to not die as a marytr.

Saint days quickly became a staple of the early Catholic church. As Christian Rohr has argued, these were not just days of religious observance, but were deeply seeped in the symbols and politics of their times:

When the feudal and the chivalrous system had been fully established during the High Middle Ages these leading social groups had to find an identity of their own by celebrating courtly feasts. So, they distinguished themselves from the rest of the people. Aristocratic festival culture, consisting of tournaments, courtly poetry and music, but also of expensive banquets, was shown openly to the public, representing the own personality or the own social group in general. Town citizens and craftsmen, however, were organized in brotherhoods and guilds; they demonstrated their community by celebrating common procession, such as on the commemoration day of the patron saint of their town or of their profession.

These courtly feasts were “held on high religious celebration days” – over half took place on Whitsunday. For craftsmen, Rohr points to the French city of Colmar, where “the bakers once stroke for more than ten years to receive the privilege to bear candles with them during the annual procession for the town patron.”

And, somewhere amid these deeply interwoven strands of religion, economics, and power, people began celebrating their own Saints’ day. That is, as most people shared a name with one of the saints, that saint’s feast day would have special significance for them.

It’s unclear to me exactly when or how this came about. Most references I read about these name day celebrations simply indicate that they have “long been popular.”

Name days celebrations today – though generally more secular in their modern incarnation – take place in a range of “Catholic and Orthodox countries…and [have] continued in some measure in countries, such the Scandinavian countries, whose Protestant established church retains certain Catholic traditions.”

But here’s the interesting thing: at least based on Wikipedia’s list of countries where name day celebrations are common, the practice is much more common in Eastern Orthodox countries than in Roman Catholic ones.

Now, the great East–West Schism – which officially divided the two churches – took place in 1054. My sense – though I’ve had trouble finding documentation of this – is that celebrating one’s saints’ day was a common practice in both east and west at that time. Name day celebrations do take place in the western European countries of France, Germany, and – importantly – Italy, which seems to indicate that the difference in name day celebration rates is not merely a reflection of an east-west divide.

It’s entirely unclear to me what led to this discrepancy. One theory is that this a by-product of the Reformation – during which time, at least in the UK, various laws banned Catholics from practicing.

But, I also find myself wondering about the effects of various reorganizations of the (Roman Catholic) liturgical calendar – eg, the calendar of Saint Days and other religious festivals. The calendar has been adjusted many times over the years, including as recently as 1969, when Pope Paul VI, explaining that “in the course of centuries the feasts of the saints have become more and more numerous,” wrote justified the new calendar:

…the names of some saints have been removed from the universal Calendar, and the faculty has been given of re-establishing in regions concerned, if it is desired, the commemorations and cult of other saints. The suppression of reference to a certain number of saints who are not universally known has permitted the insertion, within the Roman Calendar, of names of some martyrs of regions where the proclaiming of the Gospel arrived at a later date. Thus, as representatives of their countries, those who have won renown by the shedding of their blood for Christ or by their outstanding virtues enjoy the same dignity in this same catalogue.

Most notably and controversially, Saint Christopher was deemed to not be of the official Roman tradition, though celebration of his feast day is still permitted under some regional calendars. If you’re curious, you can read a list of the full changes made to liturgical calendar in 1969.

Many of these changes, such as the removal of Symphorosa and her seven sons, likely had little effect on anyone’s name day celebration. But, by mere probability, I would think that at some point over the years, someone had their Saint removed from the liturgy – which I imagine would probably be a rather disarming event. Though I suspect that wasn’t a big enough factor in diminishing the strength of the celebration over time.

Well, that is all that I have been able to find out. I have many unanswered questions and many more which keep popping up. If you have some expertise in Catholic liturgy and have any theories or answers, please let me know. Otherwise, I suppose, it will remain another historical mystery.



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