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Les Calendriers - Name Days and Saints

1900 calendrier

A reader recently asked why so many French ancestors seemed to a pick name out of a hat one day and just start using that instead of their birth names. We are quite keen on name freedom, as you may have gathered, and heartily cheer all peoples who retain the fluidity of names it seems all once had. Yet, there is more than liberty behind French names. There is the calendrier.

For generations, almanacs included a list of the days of the year, giving the holidays and for all the rest of the days, the saint associated with each. As almanacs became rarer, simple board calendars became popular, still with the saints' days. For years they were produced by the Postes et Télégraphes as a two-sided card. Magazines and newspapers also printed them as free inserts (like the one above.) They are still sold every year in papeteries (a sort of combined news agent and stationer's) all over France.

In naming a child, parents usually would choose from the family, or give the name of one of the godparents, or often it was the name of the saint of their diocese, but they might give the name for the saint of the child's birthday. Jokes abound about presumed illiterates naming their child "Fetnat", from the abbreviation on the calendar for Fête National (14 July). Even if a child was not actually baptized with the name of the saint of his or her birthday, the name might be used informally. Thus, for that French ancestor who suddenly takes up a new name, check to see if it is not the saint of his or her birthday.

The calendrier worked two ways. If the birthday did not give a name, the name could give a birthday. Before the 20th century, people did not so often celebrate their birthdays as they did their name days. So, if a child were named Jules and his birthday in November, he would more likely have celebrated his "name day" -- 12 April, the day of Saint Jules -- than his birthday.  This had the bonus of namesakes celebrating together. Even now, every year on the 26th of July, I receive a phone call from Oncle Maurice in Orléans, wishing me a "Happy Saint Anne's Day". Some people celebrate both days, but this is considered excessive.

Just to add to the confusion, as years went by and saints changed in popularity, some were replaced on the calendars. The calendar above, from 1900 has the first of July as the day of Saint Eléanore. A calendar from 1918 has it as the day of Saint Martial, and a calendar of 1926 gives that day to Saint Thibaud. Generally, they are in agreement for most days, but there are occasional variations, keeping name fluidity a possibility.

We give here photos of the name days from the 1900 calendar above. Double click on them to see the full sized image.

1900 Calendrier Jan-June         1900 calendrier Jul-Dec

Enjoy your name day.

Enjoy your holidays.

©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy