Saturday, March 15, 2008

What is in a Name?

The tradition of celebrating Name Days, or namedays, started in Medieval Europe. Children were often named after Saints, so the Catholic Church helped spread the practice, although in some countries it was first thought to be more of a pagan tradition. Scandinavia has a rich history in this area and in my native Finland every day of the year, other than New Year's Day, the leap day of February 29th and Christmas have a name or a few attached to it. There are actually three different official nameday calendars in my homeland, one for the Finnish Lutherans, one for the Swedish minority and yet a third for the Greek Orthodox Church.

Tomorrow will be Ilkka's nameday, and if I were working in Finland, like everyone sharing this name I would be expected to provide a fancy cake for my coworkers for the coffee break. They in turn would provide the refreshments and probably sing "Good Luck", using the tune of our "Happy Birthday to You". Present giving is not usually done, unless it is something little within the family. At least when I was young every classmate's day would be recognized. You could hide your birthday but everyone knew when the nameday was. Interestingly, I wasn't named after a Saint but rather a famous Finnish rebel leader (Jaakko Ilkka) who in 1596 was defending the rights of fellow farmers who at the time were suffering from poverty and famine. He was caught riding his horse by some too-eager early bureaucrat who hastily had him executed, just to learn the next day of orders to capture Ilkka alive and bring him to Turku, Finland's former capital. It came too late as the man was already dead, but a great legend was born. There is even an important daily newspaper by that name. Some Finns in this country celebrate St. Urho's Day on the same day, March 16th, but this is not the case in Finland itself. The following day is St. Patrick's Day, another name day, although this year it was moved by the Catholic Church to today, in order not fall on Holy Monday which this year falls on 3-17.

Yesterday was the nameday of my beloved first and second grade teacher, Matilda. It is easy for me to remember because of the close proximity to my own day. In the middle was Risto, a Finnish form of Christian, a popular name in Scandinavia, and there always was some boy in the class by that name. Matilda, along with her husband Eino Varama, was one of the most important influences in my life. A small woman of incredible warmth and wisdom, she left a lasting impression on a small boy (we start school the year we turn 7). I realized that she was deeply religious when during the very first day of school, during lunch recess, I took out a pack of cards and started playing solitaire (Klondike, 3 at the time). She came by and didn't say anything negative but I felt like she connected card playing to gambling, or in any case it wasn't a virtue in her eyes. After school I rushed to my mother's clothing store and we marched together to the nearby book store and I bought a beautiful small light blue Bible with thin pages which were gilded on all sides. The next day I waited for the first recess to start, reached to my leather briefcase and pulled out the Book, explaining that I had this, too, not only a deck of cards. Her face lit up: I can still see the smile. I also learned what miracles faith can do: in second grade she was operated on for breast cancer which at that time usually meant a death sentence. For a couple months we had a substitute, but on Matilda's day she invited me and a few other classmates to her home for a small celebration and soon thereafter she returned to teaching. Ten years later she had another brush with death because of a burst brain aneurism. I was already studying with Heifetz in Los Angeles but her husband kept on writing to me. Nobody expected her to survive the almost two-month-long coma and temperature of over 104 degrees, but one day she woke up, wonderful as ever. The excess blood was removed from her brain, but unlike in most stroke victims, her emotional capabilities were not affected. If anything, she was sweeter and more loving than ever. When I graduated to third grade, Eino Varama became my woodwork teacher. He was also a gifted violin maker and during most lessons he just wanted me to sit in his "office", playing his instruments and offering my opinions. Then he would quickly do my work for me and gave me either a B+ or A- in my report card. A couple days a week I would visit their home right after classes, which was in a big building for teachers next to the school. Our friendship lasted until they both left this world; she first as she was 10 years older than her husband, and then he later, having lost sensation in his feet and hands and most of his eyesight. But both of them remained sharp as tacks to the end. I still think of them every day.

The Helsinki University is the official keeper and publisher of the Finnish Almanac. On their web site they have scans from the almanac pages dating back to the handwritten one from 1300s and printed ones from 1500s to present. The old almanacs had weather forecasts, information on diseases, horoscopes, in addition to data on solar and lunar eclipses and other important astronomical data, such as then-known planets lining up. I helped my father with his historical research since I was little and I don't have trouble reading the old script which to most of today's readers would present a problem. One finds interesting details in these old images. For instance "Gerardus" pops up in 1695 (Oct. 3), just to disappear eight years later, probably as unnecessary. An early name, "Narcissus", goes away but resurfaces in 1735 (Oct. 27) and lasts all the way until 1907 when many old Latin-based names disappear altogether, to make space for Finnish first names. "Ilkka" takes over "Herbert" on 3-16 in 1929.

There is a Finnish saying "Ei nimi miestä pahenna" which literally means "A man's name doesn't make him worse" but could also be understood as "Your name is your destiny". There was a fascinating article in the New York Times Science section just this past Tuesday. Titled "A Boy Named Sue, and a Theory of Names", it among other things ponders why parents give their children sometimes the oddest names. The Hogg sisters, Ima and Ura, were well know in Texas, and in spite of their names (or because of them?) managed to accomplish great things.

I like being named after a rebel leader; I just wouldn't want to be hastily hanged because of a small bureaucrat's orders. There are plenty of those around, as you know.