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The AnnunciationOn Monday March 25, it will be the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the angel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive a son; Gabriel also tells her that the child is to be called Jesus. This was staggering enough news, but the big shock for her was that this would happen through the Holy Spirit and not via the usual route to conception.

This is the story told in Luke, while Matthew tells the story from a different angle. According to this gospel, Mary found herself pregnant and her betrothed, Joseph, was considering breaking things off. But then an angel came to him in a dream, and explained the situation to him.

Although the Bible doesn’t say so, it’s generally assumed that this angel was also Gabriel. Further assumptions are that he was the angel who appeared to the shepherds at the Nativity, and the one who came to Jesus to give him strength as he prayed in the garden before the Crucifixion.

The Feast of the Annunciation is held nine months before Christmas, to symbolise the length of a pregnancy. It is also called Lady Day, and until 1752, it was New Year’s Day in Britain. It’s obviously a hard habit to break, because in the UK they still start the financial year on April 6, which is Lady Day on the old (Julian) calendar.

The Annunciation isn’t Gabriel’s first appearance in the Bible, or even in the New Testament. In the Book of Daniel he interprets Daniel’s visions for him, and earlier in the Gospel of Luke he appears to Zachariah, a priest, and the husband of the Virgin Mary’s kinswoman. He tells Zachariah that his wife Elizabeth, for many years barren, would bear a son named John; this would be John the Baptist, who was to prepare the way for Jesus.

According to Islamic teachings, the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Muhammad, and led him on his “Night Journey”, or great spiritual vision of the heavens. So the angel is important to all three Abrahamic religions.

There is a tradition that Gabriel will blow his trumpet to announce Judgement Day, which comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Jewish legend, Gabriel is said to pluck new souls from the Tree of Life so that they may be conceived as new babies. So you can see Gabriel as both the beginning and end of Life – although the end is only to make way for a new beginning.

Gabriel is the English form of the Hebrew name Gavri’el, which is variously interpreted as “man of God”, “strong man of God”, “hero of God”, “champion of God”, “warrior of God”, or “strength of God”. The image you get from it is of a mighty being, using their immense strength to serve God. In the Old Testament, words such as great, might, power and strength are used to describe Gabriel, and in Jewish tradition he is an angel of judgement and punishment.

However, Christian tradition sees Gabriel differently. As he appears in the New Testament to bring people news of great joy, and to bring comfort to those burdened by great worry, he is viewed as an angel of mercy and consolation.

Angels are spiritual beings, not physical, so they cannot be said to have a sex, although in the Bible they always take on the appearance of human males when communicating with people. However, you might say that in Jewish tradition, Gabriel gives off a very masculine “energy”, while Christians get more of a feminine “vibe” from the angel. (If you doubt this, consider how many Nativity plays you’ve seen where a female plays the role of the announcing angel).

Because of this certain level of gender ambiguity, Gabriel has, for centuries, sometimes been used as a female name in the English-speaking world, and in fact Tom Waterhouse’s mother, the horse trainer Gai Waterhouse, is named Gabriel (in case you were wondering what Gai was short for). There are also specifically feminine forms of the name we have imported from other languages, such as French Gabrielle and Italian Gabriella.

The name Gabriel has charted in Australia since the 1960s, and joined the Top 100 in 2001 at #97. I’m not sure if this was an influence, but it joined the Top 100 a year after the movie The Patriot came out, starring Australian actor Heath Ledger as Gabriel Martin. It peaked in 2009 at #60, and since then has been on a decline. Last year it made #88.

Two feminine forms of the name have been more successful. Gabrielle has charted since the 1920s, and joined the Top 100 in the 1990s, when it peaked at #49. It left the Top 100 in 2010, and in 2011 was at #111, still only just outside the Top 100.

Gabriella has charted since the 1940s, but didn’t begin really climbing until the 1980s. It joined the Top 100 in 2006 at #89 (there were just as many baby girls named Gabriella as Gabrielle that year). It peaked the same year as Gabriel, in 2009, and only one place higher, at #59. However, its decline has been more gentle, and last year it made #71.

I do think the greater success of Gabrielle and Gabriella has not been helpful to the popularity of the male name Gabriel. I have noticed that many people hear the name Gabriel as Gabrielle, or think that the two names are so alike as to make Gabriel sound “feminine”. I have to admit this annoys me, because I much prefer Gabriel to either of his sister-names.

Gabriel seems to be more appealing to mothers as a baby name than it is to fathers, with many women complaining that their partner strongly vetoed the name Gabriel for their sons, even as a middle name.

I think it might suffer a little from what we might call The Valentino Factor – women are more likely to find the name Gabriel handsome, charming and even sexy, while men are more likely to find it foofy and irritatingly ornate.

Another issue is the nickname, because the standard shortening is Gabe, and many parents dislike it. Some worry it sounds too much like the word gay or the word babe, others think that it sounds dim-witted or redneck, and others just find it ugly.

It would be easy to suggest some other nickname, but chances are he’s going to get called Gabe once he leaves the house anyway, if he gets a nickname at all. Personally I don’t think Gabriel needs any nickname.

Gabriel is a beautiful, indeed, a heavenly name. It’s a name of great masculinity and strength, yet at the same time has a wonderful sweet tenderness as well. One thing that occurs to me is that there is a theme of the angel Gabriel bringing joyful news of unexpected pregnancies, and a miraculous childbirth. I think it would make a great name for someone expecting a baby they never thought they would ever have, a baby which defied all logic to make his way into the world.

For those who never thought their miracle baby would ever arrive, Gabriel says, Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!

POLL RESULT: Gabriel received a very good approval rating of 76%. People saw the name Gabriel as strong yet tender (23%), handsome and heavenly (19%), sexy (12%), and powerful (11%). However, 9% thought the name was a little bit girly, and 7% that it didn’t have any good nicknames.

(Picture shows The Annunciation on a window at St Mary’s Church, Denville, New Jersey)