Name Days, Birthdays & Holiday Attractions

Maria – say it loud and there’s music playing; say it soft and it’s almost like praying…(West Side Story)

Princess Maria Hermenegild (1768-1845) was the wife of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II. It was  for her Name Day each year from 1796 until 1802 Josef Haydn composed a new setting for use in the Princely chapel of the ordinary of the Mass – the result was a series of choral works which rank amongst the greatest ever composed.

There are six masses:


In medieval Europe Name Days generally served as the birthday might today. The name day of an individual being the feast or saint’s day for whom a child is named after upon christening. In that time in that world before the commonplaces of hours and days; dates and years, the cycle of the year followed the annual cycle of the ecclesiastical calendar replete with processions, observances, fasting, feast days and holidays. Name Days were a practical alternative to birthdays which might not be easily known.

The additional attraction of using feast days as Name Days was that such days were observed as double feasts – that is requiring both attendance at Mass and refraining from work  – literally holidays as well as Holy Days. All Sundays were double feasts as were other days of the Christian year like Christmas; the Annunciation; Ascension; Corpus Christi; the feast of St John the Baptist; the feast of St Peter; and many others. By the early sixteenth century there were around 100 double feasts and another 50 semi-doubles which merely required attending Mass.  On these days throughout Europe entire courts ceremonially processed to Mass with their respective monarchs.

The most popular Christian name was Mary and it was often used as a first or second name both for girls and boys. The Austrian House of Hapsburg use its Latin form Maria as a first name for princesses of the blood consistently from the late the sixteenth century. This made it a fashionable practice amongst the wider aristocracy. At court in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa the shared Name Day becomes a major festival. It was usually observed on the 8/9th September – the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin.

However,  in southern Germany and Austria and Bohemia a second feast on 15th September established for the Most Holy Name of Mary superseded the Virgin’s Nativity in the eighteenth century. Before the Battle of Vienna in 1683, John III Sobieski placed his troops under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and they carried banners with the name of Mary emblazoned on them into battle.

Pope Innocent XI inserted the feast commemorating the power or Mary’s Name into the Roman Calendar to be observed on the Sunday within the Octave of the Virgin’s Nativity. In some ecclesiastical jurisdictions it was still observed on 17th September – principally in Spain and her dominions.



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