What’s In a Name?

Today, as most of the world celebrates New Year’s Day, the church officially honors an odd festival (which was created in opposition to the New Year’s Day revelries): The Holy Name of Jesus.

To understand why we have this feast day at all you have to go back, way back, to when there were differing calendars, and therefore differing ideas of when a new year actually begins.

For much of secular recorded history, the new year began on March 1st (or at least in March) with the ushering in of meteorological Spring (note: this is not astronomical Spring, but rather just the date when Spring starts to show off in many places). The names of the later months of our current calendar, September, October, November, and December still harken back to this reality, as September is the seventh month (Sept), and October the eighth (Oct), etc. if you start the year in March.

If you care nothing else about this festival or this day, the above is a feather in your cap for 2022. Bet you learned something new.

There was, at the same time, a persistent thought that January 1st marked the beginning of the year, as it honored the god Janus who looked forward and backward and immediately followed the Winter Solstice.

When Julius Caesar reorganized the calendar for Rome, he made it the beginning of the year, and it made sense because the Roman Senate convened in January. The first day of that month became the official “Saturnalia” celebration day, though the weeks prior and weeks after were included in the festivities.

This date as the start of the new year began to spread throughout the centuries, and eventually landed in England and the American colonies who were late adopters to the idea (it took them until 1752).

But, as the Church was birthed in Rome and the Saturnalia festivities were in full swing with drunken parties and dancing and theater tournaments, influential clergy (like Augustine), though they would have rather have had no part in marking the day at all, decided that worship and fasting would be good practices to keep the Christians from the pagan celebrations.

This practice, btw, is still held in some parishes on New Year’s Eve until the wee hours of New Year’s Day, and is called “Night Watch.”

So the church, feeling it needed to keep Christians from getting too boozy and too happy around the pagan feast, went with a more Biblical understanding of the day. Using Christmas Day as a marker (which, again, was reluctantly placed on the calendar…Christmas wasn’t a thing for Christians in that early church) they saw that eight days later would be the circumcision and name-day of Jesus, and they decided, “Yup! That’s what we’ll call it.”

And so, this feast day was born as a reaction to the outside world and a coopting of other feasts at the time. In this way the church showed great ingenuity, in my opinion. After all, people don’t like it when you take things away from them, for whatever reason, so they’d much rather you add or shift things for them.

The above is interesting, but for those of us who are more interested in seeing these holy/holidays differently rather than understanding them as purely a reaction to the outside world (which makes me not want to honor them at all, to be honest!), I present to you this idea:

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus presents for the church, and for all of us, an opportunity to honor the importance of names for humans.

I remember one time as a young, smart-mouthed kid, that at a Cuban restaurant in Hialeah, Florida, I forgot to note something that I wanted to order and said, “Get Jose back here! I forgot something.”

My grandfather looked at me with a mixture of anger and disappointment and said, “Tim, that is not his name. He is proud of his name. You cannot change it without his permission, and you need to respect it.”

I was obviously (and rightfully!) put in my place. Indeed it was not his name, and I was making a terrible, racist joke that attempted to take that away from him.

Names are important.

This is why it is, in fact, racist to not learn how to pronounce the names of people of color (this tactic has long been used as a way to degrade people). This was recently seen in a prominent Georgia Senate election a few years ago.

It is racist to deny people job interviews because they have names that are not “traditional” or are specifically ethnic.

Names are given in love, usually in honor, and mean something.

This is also why when our trans brothers and sisters offer to the world a name that best fits them, we need to honor it.

This day is a reminder for me, and can be for the church, that names matter, by God.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa
-editorials by me

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