Latvian Culture and the “Name Day” Celebration

by Evelyn J. Mocbeichel

Have you ever heard of a celebration called Name Day? I first learned about this tradition when I became friends with a co-worker, Mara, who is Latvian. Through our friendship with Mara and her husband, we were invited to family holiday celebrations and learned about their culture.  Birthdays are celebrated by Latvians, but an added holiday is Name Day, which is also celebrated in many European countries and Latin America. For instance, it is celebrated in Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, Hungary, Spain and the Czech Republic, to name a few. This tradition goes back to the middle Ages and originated in the list of holidays celebrated in commemoration of saints and martyrs of the church. The Latvian calendar lists about 1,000 names a year with the date of a person’s celebration. More modern names have been added that might not have a saint’s name and the list is updated every few years.

Latvian “Name Day” Card

The reason I am writing about this topic of Latvian cultural traditions is because of a text I received from friends that we met over thirty years ago when they visited New York. Through Mara, we met a young man, Olaf and his mother, Viktorija, when they came here on vacation from Latvia. We’ve kept contact ever since on subsequent visits. I was happily surprised when Olaf’s text to me on February 26 was a message from both him and his mom remembering me on MY Name Day! I didn’t even know I had one! The spelling, Evelina, was slightly different, but it was my special day! Such a nice tradition and it is popular for the person to celebrate his or her day by bringing snacks to work for co-workers to enjoy. The co workers might give the Name’s Day person flowers, a small gift or some sweets. If it is a school child, the student might bring in candy for the teacher and classmates that day. Basically, this is a chance for people to have two celebrations reminding them how special they are!

One of the best things about meeting someone from a different background is that it opened a whole new world of information for me. I wasn’t familiar with the Baltic Countries and learned they consist of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Riga is the capital of Latvia and it sits on the Baltic Sea and boasts many museums and concert halls.  By the way, when mentioning concert halls, Latvians love to sing and are world famous for their song festivals that take place every five years with over 40,000 attendees from around the world! The city of Riga consists of preserved wooden buildings, medieval Old Town and art nouveau architecture to explore. There are so many interesting facts about Latvia like their flag is one of the oldest in the world, after Denmark’s, which is the oldest. The Latvian flag is easily recognizable as it is all red with a white stripe down the middle. Speaking of the country, more than half of Latvia is covered by forests and is known as one of Europe’s greenest countries. Citizens are allowed to legally cut down a tree in the forests for their Christmas celebration! Here’s a little known “factoid” about Latvia is that they invented jeans. A man named Jacob W. Davis, born in Riga moved to the U.S. in 1854 and designed a strong pair of trousers for a customer. These durable pants were so popular he went to his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss Company, for monetary backing and the rest is history. His distinct orange seam, still in use today was his trademark. Now see how much you’ve just learned about Latvia!