Today in Italy we celebrate Festa del Papà. March 19th is Father’s Day here and the Saint of the Day, Santo del Giorno is of course San Giuseppe, Saint Joseph. Every year on this day all those who are named after San Giuseppe will celebrate their onomastico – their Saint’s day or name day in a way that is quite similar to how they celebrate their birthday.

As I thought about what the onomastico means here I got to thinking about my own name. Given to me by my parents more years ago than I care to count, I have never really warmed to my name, it has no meaning to me nor does it have any place in our family history.

This got me thinking about the long list of “designer” names Hollywood’s stars have been bestowing upon their children. Think Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple, Frank Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit and who could forget Michael Jackson’s son Blanket. And I started to wonder, what is in a name?

For genealogists, surnames are the threads that tie family trees together. Passed down from one generation to the next they provide clues about our ancestors and our history. Historically, a surname might have told you something about someone. Where he came from, what he did for a living or who his father was. But as immigrants poured into the States surnames were often Americanized or anglicized and eventually lost all meaning.

And as surnames went, so did given names. Maria became Mary, Giovanni became John or Johnny, Stefano became Steven or Steve. But the roots of many of these names can be traced back to our Catholic ancestors who named their children in honor their saints.

While that practice might have become passé in the States, it is very much alive and well here in Naples. Saints names are passed down through the generations and when one is given a name they are given the legacy of everyone who took that name before them and of the Saint in whose honor they are named. And each year on the day on which their Saint is honored they celebrate their onomastico.

It didn’t take long for my Italian friends to figure out that I don’t have an onomastico. I’m not named after a Saint or anyone else in particular for that matter. So after much consternation it was decided that we would use my middle name Jo or Giuseppe for my onomastico. And now every year on this day I am regaled with gifts, cards and well wishes, a gesture that may not have the same significance to me, but whose sentiment I certainly appreciate.

So I have to ask – do names really matter? Do we owe it to our children to give them names that bestow on them some ties to their family, their faith, their community, or their culture? Should our names give us some sense of our history, our place in society, our identity?

I can’t help but wonder if the Apples and the Moon Units of this world got short-changed. Will they forever resent being saddled with a name that is not only odd but that has no roots or meaning?

Or in the end do names really matter?

If we are willing, even eager to change our surnames, our given names, and even our place names (and a subject for another post) then what value do we place in a name? And when all is said and done, is a name nothing less and nothing more than a name?