Rares are the French who can tell you from memory what day falls Saint-Emile. Midsummer Day, maybe a few. Saint-Nicolas and Sainte-Catherine, a little more. New Year’s Eve, yes. And Valentine’s Day, of course. Parents ceased, after the Second World War and especially for forty years, to give their children the first names of Catholic saints. This previously daily reference has faded, competed with the anniversary date. There remains the weather forecast on TV: “Tomorrow, it will rain and we will celebrate Claude’s. “
But for some, the feast day and the anniversary day are simultaneous. Little Noëlles, born on December 25th. Des Camilles, July 14. Valentine’s Day and Valentine’s Day, February 14. In the 1900s, around six Valentines were born a day, but over 120 were born on February 14. A ratio of 1 to 20! Only Christmas does more (a hundred times more Christmas is born at Christmas than on another random day in the year).
It works with some first names that were in fashion, not with Hildefonse: he is not born on January 23. It was a clever way of combining current tastes, religious references and birthdays, while placing the child under the protection of a patron saint. On average, all saints included, twice as many named babies were born “X” on Saint-X’s day than outside of Saint-X.
But the abandonment of the first names of saints also led to the decline of this practice, perhaps relegated to second names, invisible in everyday life. Since the 1970s, parents have even tended to generally avoid giving their child the first name of the day.
The practice took on another meaning. It is the babies who die on the day of their birth who now receive the first name of the saint of the day much more often: for each stillborn baby named Valentine on any day of the year, there will be nearly twenty if his birth takes place on Valentine’s Day. The patron saint guides the little angel in the world of the dead, he no longer watches over the future of the youngest.
Baptiste coulmont is professor of sociology at the Ecole normale supérieure Paris-Saclay, author of Sociology of first names (La Découverte, 2014, 130 p., 10 €) and, with Pierre Mercklé, from Why top models don’t smile. Sociological chronicles (Presses des Mines, 2020, 184 p., € 29).