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Grand Old Names

September 12, 2014


But it was Mary, Mary
Long before the fashions came
And there is something there that sounds so square
It’s a grand old name

(George M. Cohan “Mary’s A Grand Old Name”)

I had been thinking of titling this “10 Great Names for Your Baby Girl.” And then listing Mary, Mary, Marie, Mary, Marian, Maria and so on. That wouldn’t really be wrong; just lazy and inappropriate for the day.

For some six centuries we have celebrated the feast day of the Most Holy Name of Mary, shortly after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. We honor the naming of the holiest of God’s creatures; she who is the Queen of Heaven. On this feast day I would like to say a little more about the awesome privilege that Christian parents have when they name their children and to put forth the case for a return to some of our grand old names, including that name which belongs to the mother of God.

In the fifty years between 1961 and 2011, the name Mary fell in popularity from #1 to #112. That is precipitous but not surprising when I consider all the women of “a certain age” who are named Mary contrasted with how infrequently I hear the name invoked when around groups of young children. (One of my grandmothers was a Mary, the other had Marie as a middle name. I, part of the last generation to have multiple Marys in each school classroom, have Mary as my middle name.) An Atlantic article from 2012 stated, “People value names that are uncommon.”  The same article mentioned that “In 2011 there were more than twice as many Nevaehs (‘Heaven’ spelled backwards) born as there were Marys.” So, with it becoming increasingly difficult to be ‘unique’, perhaps it is time for this name so dear to Christianity to have its resurgence.

My purpose in writing this is not to criticize those who have chosen the less common names for their children. With a name like “Ellyn”, who am I to judge? I know a thing or two about having to correct misspellings, mispronunciations, and the rest of the assorted down sides to having an unusual name. I simply hope to encourage parents to consider the vast treasury of saint names when naming their children – vast and replete with unusual names if that is one’s criteria. Canon law does not specify that children be given saints’ names, but does caution parents to not choose names which are “foreign to Christian sentiment.” That is sensible counsel, to which I would add my own bit of advice. Timeless names – at home on both a birth announcement and a business card – are a good investment in avoiding the burdens of fickle fashion. A trendy name that sounds good for a baby might not fit so well when its owner is ready for an AARP card. A parent cannot legally have his or her child tattooed, so the same sense of gravitas behind this prohibition should inform the decision to choose the name which will mark a baby for the rest of its life.

But what more can we give our children besides mellifluous names that will suit them all their days? A saint’s name is a gift that will last forever. The child with a saint’s name has a patron, a heavenly protector, and role model. It is my hope that more and more girls will be given that name which has been around “long before the fashions came.” The name which St. Bonaventure said, “cannot be pronounced without bringing some grace to him who does so devoutly.” Mary!