Understanding the people leads to connection to—and enthusiasm for—Family History

Guest post by Jean Wilcox Hibben, M.A., Ph.D

For the past year, Gena Philibert-Ortega and I have been providing information on the social history that should accompany any research of one’s people. These can be accessed from http://genaandjean.blogspot.com. It is not enough to know the names, dates, and places; understanding why those place and those dates were of importance, and maybe even why those names were selected, can provide clues to genealogical research.

An example of this is what is called a “naming day.” When most genealogists look for their family members, they hope to find a birth certificate (though, in some cases, it is listing nothing more than “baby girl Smith” or “unnamed boy Jones” and the only clarification that the child is the “right” one is the listing of the parents and the birth date and place). A secondary option, though still usually considered a primary source, is a baptismal certificate. When a child is baptized, his or her name is entered into the officiator’s book and/or on a certificate that may or may not be filed with the church in question. Now the child’s name is known and it is expected that this baby will retain that name throughout his/her life (though, if a girl, may likely add a married surname). We all know that doesn’t happen, of course. People who don’t like their names might have them legally changed (as we see in the entertainment field) or a person might adopt a nickname to use even on legal documents. (A friend of mine always referred to her mother-in-law as “Betty,” yet on the census and other records, including her tombstone, her name is “Minnie.” When I asked for clarification I learned she was christened Minnie Myrtus Morgan and hated the name so had everyone call her Betty.)

But in some cultures, there is another day of celebration and it can happen nearly any time after the child’s birth: the naming day. Here is when the official name by which the person will be called is determined and set. The problem: it is not a civil ceremony that would garner a document filed in a court or government office and it is not a religious ceremony that would be recorded in a church record. But this name is the one the child will most likely use throughout life and that can create a major confusion. In an entire family in my line, the names with which the children were christened are different (in some cases, entirely different, except for the surname) from those given in the church baptismal ceremony and related record. Were it not for a series of letters from the family members and the repeated reference to one person’s “naming day” anniversary (some celebrate that anniversary instead of birthdays), I would still be in a quandary about this strange anomaly in my family.

Understanding the traditions and culture of a person’s roots may lead to previously unknown records. For more discussion on the importance of culture and folkways in one’s genealogy, the course “Learning About Your Ancestor Through Culture and Folkways,” goes into much more detail of how to use this tool and where to find information.