Besides their birthday, many Italians also celebrate their onomastico. This term, which in English translates to “name-day,” derives from the Greek verb onomázein - chiamare per nome (to call by name). The onomastico has a strong religious background and is a common observance in many Catholic countries. Simply put, it refers to celebrating a person’s name coinciding with the saint honored on a particular day. Usually, an Italian Catholic Calendar of Saints will feature the name of a religious figure throughout the entire year. In the past, many parents would name their newborn after the saint that appeared on the calendar on that exact day. For instance, if a baby boy were to be born on September 19, the day of San Gennaro (San Januarius), he will be named Gennaro. Similarly, if a baby girl happened to be born on July 26, she would be named Anna in relation to Sant’ Anna’s feast day. It is not unusual for an Italian person to celebrate both the birthday and the name day at once.
Generally speaking, the onomastico is an Italian tradition that is observed more in the central and southern part of Italy. It is celebrated like that of a birthday – with homemade or store-bought pastries and un pensierino (a small gift), such as a bouquet of flowers or a houseplant, accompanied by wishes of “Buon onomastico” or “Tanti auguri di Buon onomastico” or simply “auguri”.
It is important to mention that not every Italian person celebrates the onomastico, but rather only those carrying the names of the most recognized saints. One of these special dates falls on March 19 which represents the onomastico of men and women named, respectively, Giuseppe, Peppe, Beppe, Peppino, Giuseppina, and Pina corresponding with the yearly commemoration of San Giuseppe (San Joseph). This is also the day we celebrate La Festa del papà (Father’s Day), a recurrence twice as sweet for an Italian papà named Giuseppe who, along with his fatherhood, will also celebrate his onomastico.
Another perennial feast name occurs on October 4 for men and women whose names are Francesca or Francesco dedicated to the memory of San Francesco (St. Francis) D’Assisi, patron saint of Italy. Other well-known onomastico dates are celebrated by women named Lucia on December 13 dedicated to Santa Lucia (San Lucy) and all the Valentinos or Valentinas on February 14 for those named after the internationally famous San Valentino.
Usually, Italians know the most common onomastico occurrences without consulting the calendar. For instance, on June 24, they wish “auguri di buon onomastico” to relatives, friends or even coworkers carrying the names of Giovanni, Giovanna and other derived nicknames on the annual celebration of San Giovanni Battista (San John the Baptist). Similarly, on the upcoming June 13, the most faithful observers of this tradition will remember to convey their wishes to their acquaintances whose names are Antonio, Tony, Tonino, Antonietta, and Antonia on the day Italian Catholics honor San Antonio di Padova (San Anthony of Padua).
The onomastico might not be a tradition observed by all the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, but for those who acknowledge it, it symbolizes a very special day of the year. For those who care about it, in fact, the “buon onomastico” wishes are usually given with sincerity and received with equal appreciation. Throughout the year, it also provides an additional motif to celebrate a family member, to stop over at a friend’s house for an afternoon espresso or to brighten up the day of a lifelong neighbor. Most of all, the onomastico is a very important observance that completes the beautiful mosaic that depicts our Italian culture and religious identity.