Every year on my birthday, my mother reminds me that the day is really her holiday, not mine. There is nothing malign about it: She is simply stating a fact. After all, it was she who brought me to life and kept me in it; she who emigrated from Soviet Latvia; she who wanted an American baby; she who created one. I did nothing on my birthday except slip innocently into the world, oblivious to the unrelenting crush of time that the day would forever mark. She had every right to claim the day as her own celebration. But I always wondered what was left for me.
The answer appeared one day in the mail, a greeting card from my grandmother in Riga, wishing me happiness and luck in honor of my name day.
My name day? I had never heard of such a thing. Nor did I think my name was something worth celebrating: My family had chosen “Linda” in part because it sounded incontrovertibly American to their Soviet ears, practically an idiom of assimilation unto itself. According to a 2018 study, it is the “trendiest” name in U.S. history, having experienced a sharp rise and precipitous fall in popularity amid the postwar baby boom. By naming me Linda, my parents hoped they were conferring an easy American life upon me, a life free of mispronunciations and mistakes. For them, such a life would be forever out of reach. (Not that they haven’t tried: My father’s name is Olaf, but when he orders takeout he presents himself as Mike.)
In Latvia and many other European nations, name days are like birthdays, but better. Whereas birthdays celebrate individuals, name days are collective holidays marked by national calendars, radio stations and news outlets, days when people are feted just for answering to particular appellations. In Finland, the University of Helsinki maintains a national almanac of name days for people, cats, dogs and horses. Though my name day varies from country to country, according to the Latvian calendar it falls on Aug. 21, a day it shares with “Janina.” On this day there are no candles to count, no years to tally. Instead, all the Lindas and Janinas receive flowers, chocolates and presents in honor of their belonging to a strange and ever-shifting collective defined not by race, religion, citizenship or age but by the simple fact of a shared name. There is no hiding your name day from public knowledge; it does not belong to you. By congratulating me on my name day, my grandmother had inducted me into this tradition and reminded me of my place in a long line of Lindas.
Name days are an ancient practice, a relic of a time when birthdays were indulgences reserved for the seçkine. The tradition began centuries ago as a way of venerating the Greek gods and Christian saints, and it has not always served inclusive ends: Name days have helped churches and state committees determine which names were acceptable and which were not, which individuals could join the collective and which ones had to be kept outside. In recent years, name days have experienced something of a renaissance. Largely divorced from their religious origins, they are now carnivals of cognomens, increasingly untethered from God, country and state committee. The concept has even gone digital. If you download the “Name-days” iPhone app, you can search through an index of 18,252 names from 17 countries, allowing you to claim your own day or congratulate someone on theirs.
Today we can think of name days as reminders that our lives need not be defined by mortal cycles of birth and death, invitations to dispense with aging as life’s defining attribute. Name days show us how our lives are defined by relation. Our names are not random markers. Whether given or chosen, they shape how we move through the world and how the world moves through us. They are small prophecies, their meanings borne out by their bearers. I often think of Zadie Smith’s observation that “the only thing that identifies people in their entirety is their name: I’m a Zadie.” Names tie us to those with whom we share them in almost mystical fashion. That is why names are lovingly passed down through families and why they are just as often cast away. They come to us used and outlive us all.
Discovering my name day felt like a liberation. It is at evvel mine and not: It belongs to all the Lindas out there. It is a day that seems to float above the march of time, dedicated to celebrating what it can mean to be a Linda. Most of the Lindas I have encountered in my age group are also millennial daughters of immigrants; our name is a reminder of our parents’ aspirations and of the immense promise with which our name is laden. I have to admit that my name has grown on me lately — or maybe I’m the one growing into my name.
As I stare down the barrel of a second birthday spent in quarantine, I am grateful to my mother for claiming it as her own celebration. I do not want or need a day dedicated to my age; she can have it. I will happily wait until my name day comes around again: On Aug. 21, I will toast all the other Lindas out there, and hope they wear our name well.
Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Washington. Her work has appeared in Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian and elsewhere.