Monday, 21 October 2013

The Day of the Little Bear

The Martyrdom of St Ursula
German art - 16th century

It’s been my name day today. In mainly catholic countries in Europe as well as Latin America, somebody’s name day is at least as important as their birthday, sometimes more so. In olden days a child was christened the day after birth and given the name of the saint who had died or been martyred on that day. For instance, Martin Luther was born on the 10th November and christened on the 11th, the feast day of Martin of Tours.

Birthday celebrations have taken over in secular life and when I mention name days I always get “what’s that?” in return. But for my aunt Katie and her friends, who lived in a small rural community on the Lower Rhine, name days were the highlight of their personal year. Each one of them baked cakes and pastries in advance of their  own great day and invited the others and anyone whom they valued, brothers and sisters and cousins, to ‘Namenstag Kaffee und Kuchen’ and a little something home brewed to round off the festivities. They made fruit liqueurs in those days, potent enough to redden checks and loosen tongues; wine and ready bottled alcohol was beyond their means. Everybody brought flowers, often pot plants, and a small present. The more friends and family you had, with whom you were on good terms, the more often you were part of this harmless indulgence. My father disapproved and when he made his usual dog-in-the-mangerish remarks, my mum said “nothing to do with you; let them have their fun”; living in town she wasn’t part of aunt Katie's jolly circles. I am sure she often regretted it.

I got my Christian name quite by accident. Mum and Dad had lost their first child and may therefore not have wanted to be too certain that the second child, i.e. me, would live; anyway, they didn't discuss names. When the nurse came to enquire, they looked at each other and said “we don’t have a name for her.” (Good start, wouldn’t you say?) Babies were kept away from mothers in communal nurseries until they were handed over to be fed.  The next time the nurse distributed her squalling and hungry charges, she said to my mother: “and for you I have a little Ursula”. “So be it”, my parents said, “one name’s as good as any other.” That’s how I became “the little bear”.


The legend of Ursula is based on a 4th- or 5th-century inscription from the Church of St. Ursula (on the Ursulaplatz) in Cologne. It states that the ancient basilica had been restored on the site where some holy virgins were killed. St Ursula is no longer wholeheartedly endorsed as a Christian martyr, too many different versions of her story exist and there is little evidence that any of them are true. Ursula and 11.000 virgins were supposedly killed by the Huns when they overran Cologne. The figure of 11.000 is probably a misreading of the Latin text, and the 11.000 virgins were more likely 11 ladies of Ursula’s royal train.

Be that as it may, I quite like the idea of being named after a Romano-British royal personage, who did good deeds and led a short but exemplary life. Granted, her ending wasn’t much fun, I’d have probably married the Hun prince rather than opted for martyrdom - where there’s life there’s hope of getting out of a sticky situation - but she wouldn’t have become famous if she had.

I didn’t celebrate my name day but I had a lovely present anyway: the absolutely delightful Frances of City Views Country Dreams came all the way from New York to Ludlow, in the pouring rain, to spend a glorious afternoon with me, no sacrifice required.


PS: that’s Ludlow in the UK, so from New York, NY to Ludlow, UK, is quite a distance.




47 comments:

  1. I never heard of name days, being rather unschooled in Christian lore. It's a lovely idea, though, and I have known some really neat Ursulas in my past. Strong women, all. :-)

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  2. I have no idea where my name came from and if it relates to anything or anyone! Now I am depressed as I was the FIRST child and I feel very unspecial.

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  3. You tell the best stories! I like to think of you as a "little bear." I'm drinking a glass of red waiting for the fish to bake - I'm going to make a toast to you. Lovely that you had a blog friend visit.

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  4. What an interesting post, and what nice traditions. This gave me pause for a minute because here in Western Massachusetts, there is a town next door to mine that is also named Ludlow.

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  5. I really like the name Ursula. It is pretty and different.

    I was named after my great grandmother. However, there was a Saint Barbara and she is the saint of many things but one of them is the patron saint of the dying. I like this because I work in palliative care. Seems appropriate.

    I like how you got your name. It made smile.

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  6. Since I'm not catholic, we did not have that name day tradition, but it seems like a nice one to keep in honor. I was named after one of the Dutch princesses who is very much like her mother, Queen Juliana, was and a bit of an alternative and spiritual person, which is unlike me.

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  7. Love reading about your name-day traditions--your aunt was some woman! Thank you for sharing.

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  8. How lovely. And I am so happy that you had a wonderful afternoon with your blog friend. A wonderful gift.

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  9. It is so nice to know your name, Ursula. When I went to school in NY, I was taught by some Ursuline nuns and also lived near a school called St Ursula. You had to be very smart and your parents had to have a lot of money to go to that school. Unfortunately, my parents and I didn't qualify.

    I do remember that when I was young and Catholic, it was mandatory that your baptismal name be that of a saint. With the names that people are choosing today, I doubt that rule is still in effect.

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  10. Little Bear! What a wonderful name to own. My own name was very popular in the early 1950s, so I joined the big number of those girls.

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  11. ha. what an interesting story in how you got your name...
    i bear the name of the child born before me who died
    on birth....

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  12. A bit of Church History plus a bit of your history equal a delightful post. Happy name day, Ursula.

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  13. I so enjoy these chats. You are the best sort of company to my taste: informal, interested, full of truly interesting memories, reading, observations. Thanks for being a true pal, albeit on-line. I love the wee taste of the flavor of rural life back there and then!

    ALOHA from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral
    =^..^=

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  14. Not being Catholic, my family does not "do" Namenstag, but I know of the tradition from friends who do.
    As for the homemade fruit liqueurs, my Mum makes them, too; by now she will have a whole battery of beautifully shaped bottles ready to be given away at Christmas. Her strawberry liqueur is summer in a bottle!

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  15. How wonderful to have a visitor from far away on your name day. I hope to be a visitor from farther away one day.
    "Little Bear" does suit you, I think. I think I can understand your parents' nervousness, having lost one child and afraid of losing you. The nurse settled the question nicely. Ursula is a good proud name, whether Saint Ursula's past was what it seemed or not.
    Luv, K

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  16. I had no idea Ursula meant little bear in Latin. I sure learn here. Thanks!

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  17. Hi! All that you talk about the tradition of giving name is typical for the Orthodox Church as well. Usually a child was christened the day after birth and was given the name of the saint on this day.
    Now, this tradition is not preserved. I've got my name Hope (Nadezda) although these Name day was before my birthday.
    Congratulations on your Name day Ursula!

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  18. Dear Ursula, greetings from one little bear to another. All day yesterday (21st) somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the date meant something. Searched in the wrong corners: Someone's birthday, an anniversary? Nothing came to me. So glad I logged onto your blog and was put out of my misery. Even if a day late.

    U

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  19. Interesting to learn how you got your name. I was called after the local vicar, for reasons that still remain obscure.

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  20. You are so cute and I loved the humour in your story - this is just a lovely piece of your history with your name and the warm jolly get-to-gethers you knew as a child. Its much like our family would get together, but not quite as enchantingly as yours. This story just made me feel happy n warm and by the way, I would have married the Prince as well. he,he Have a wonderful day Friko :)

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  21. How wonderful to have a guest from my land.
    My granddaughter lives in her city of New York.
    I like your name
    Little Bear
    is the name of a puppy I found on my country road
    and now is with my grandson in Washington, DC.
    Small world..
    Happy Birthday
    to you....

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  22. Very interesting post. I have always found the idea of 'namenstag' an interesting tradition -- I believe there is the same tradition in Greece -- and probably other countries, too, I expect. Lovely to think of you as 'little bear' -- and the story of how you were named is utterly charming...

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  23. Name origins are always so interesting. I googled my name origin lately and it said it had different meanings depending on the country. It was fascinating!

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  24. Funny, Just yesterday I was reading Hewson's 'Carnival of the Dead' and it mentioned Ursula. I love these vignettes you write. I wish I had a name day, but don't. Both of my given names are pagan, or so the priest informed my parents. To get me baptized, the added 'Mary' thus making my initials M-A-D.

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  25. I'm reading a book right now about a woman whose name is Ursula. She is English and at this point in the story, is living in Germany. Made me think of you.

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  26. Dear Friko, I so enjoyed reading your story about how you got your name and your name day. In the convent, we received our "religious" name after being there six months. I was Sister Innocence and my feast day or name day was the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28. That is, the feast of the babies who were supposedly slain by Herod in his attempt to get rid of the baby Jesus.

    Every year, on a nun's feast day, the other nuns with whom she was on mission--so that could be between two and twenty people--gave the feast-day nun a gift of a holy card. She'd be given a plate with all the holy cards on it. And of course, when the next nun's feast day came along, she might get the holy card in return. What goes around, comes around! Thanks for bringing back the memory. And happy name day! Peace.

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  27. Well, belated happy name day! I think that's a wonderful tradition and I'm fascinated with both how you were named and the story behind it! I know little about such things, but now I'm curious about mine (I know WHY, but the back-story if I should have been Catholic and have a name day!)

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  28. There must have been a whole lot of babies born on St. Ursula Day because it seemed like every other girl I met in Germany was named Ursula... or Inga. Fond memories of them all.

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  29. Friko: I do believe Friko's World has become the center of many universes. How nice to spend your name day with Frances!

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  30. I'm glad that a blog pal visited you for your name day. I have never had a bad experience meeting a blogger friend in person.

    =)

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  31. Congratulations on your name-day; did you know that a variant on the story of Ursula is that of St. Wilgefortis (sometimes known as Uncumber) who managed to grow a beard at lightning speed in order to preserve her virginity from marriage to a pagan?

    My name-day is only a a week or so away from my birthday, but my name is in my father's family and we aren't Catholics, so was chosen without reference to the day. Which is just as well, considering that my birthday is, I believe, the day for Saints Eulalia, Sophronius and Eulogius.

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  32. Better yet, you may well be named after an ancient bear goddess.

    Have you heard Anonymous 4 11,000 Virgins?
    http://www.anonymous4.com/discography.php?9

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  33. Friko, you've brought back some fond memories. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church and tradition. One's names day was bigger than one's birthday. (Penelope didn't have a names day, but, you know, that was okay as I took advantage of the long-suffering tale of Penelope and became the family martyr). Sweets were prepared for names days and our house was always filled with friends and relatives stopping by for coffee and tidbits and, yes, a little nip of something. It sounds like your name day was a special one with your visitor.

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  34. I've never heard of a name day, either. Quite an interesting way to be named, I must say. Glad you had special company for your day. :)

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  35. In days of yore, the Roman Catholic church really created so many traditions! The idea of there being a saint's name readily available on any day of the year is a little frightening to me. So many martyrs! The best part of the story, for me, was trying to pronounce "Namenstag" and the rest. I'm afraid I make everything a little too guttural, but it's fun.
    If I'd been raised in that tradition, I gather I would have been named after Saint Emma. Saint Emma??? Never heard of her!

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  36. What an interesting story about your name. I'm wondering how Ursula turned into Friko. 'Little bear' sounds very endearing.

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  37. We don't have name days in the UK of course, but I notice that my French weather forecasting website, alongside the times of sunrise and sunset and the phase of the moon, tells us which saint's day it is each day. So the tradition lingers on....

    How lovely to have a visitor from so far away.

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  38. I loved hearing about the saint's day/name day custom and how it was celebrated in your youth! And how you got your name. Isn't it interesting how our names come about? Sometimes after much thought and sometimes little at all. What a wonderful gift you had in that name-day visit!

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  39. I did not know the celebration was called “name day.” In France we called it your “fete” and I never knew that it had anything to do with religion. My parents were not religious but they would celebrate my father’s fete as well as my mother’s.
    The post office would give us a calendar with all the names of the saints, but the last time I looked I saw they had a day for Mohammed and other Muslim names – so the calendar has evolved I guess to mean any name, in any religion, or no religion, and that is true diversity.
    How wonderful for you and Frances to be able to spend time together.

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  40. I forgot to mention that my first name is not Christian, but we still found a day for me to have a “fete” for my first name.

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  41. Yes, I know about name days. School friends whose parents had come to Australia from Europe were encouraged to maintain the tradition. My name was my maternal grandmother's first name and appears to be a name that runs through the family on that side. It is wonderful to have a visitor from such a long way away - as Perpetua notes. Christine

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  42. I wonder whether my earlier comment got through. I remember school friends celebrating their name days. Often their parents had emigrated from Europe just before the children were born so the families maintained many of the traditions. My own name seems to have come down through the family. It was my maternal grandmother's first name - although she was called by her second name, Win, all her life.

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  43. Some of my school friends celebrated their name days. We - our class - were from a variety of backgrounds: many had parents who had emigrated before they were born. They celebrated the traditions of their homelands. Interesting for me to have such a glimpse into another world at that stage. My own name, Christine, was also my maternal grandmother's first name, although she was called by her second, Winifred, all her life.

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  44. !! I was born November 15 - and guess who is the saint of the day on November 16th! ? St. Margaret of Scotland - and her story is quite nice! This was fun, thanks.

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  45. Ursula, it was grand to share your name day with you in lovely (if a bit soggy) Ludlow. I loved reading this post all about the significance of name days. This was not a tradition in my Virginia childhood!

    xo

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  46. Hi Friko .. I had no idea of St Ursula's background - what fascinating reading .. and yes - life over martyrdom any time ...

    Now celebrating with another blogger on your name's day makes sense .. especially one who has travelled across that pond to see the Shropshire landscape and meet a few residents .. well they'll have had a wonderful welcome ...

    My parents didn't wait .. St Hilary it was .. and of course still is!!! Cheers and now I'm off to meet Frances .. Hilary

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