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Baby at christening ceremony

All about Christening and naming ceremonies

While it can be an enormous hassle for sleep-deprived new parents, in many families there’s a real expectation that within a few months of your baby’s arrival, there will be a christening, or some other kind of ritual or ceremony to welcome your baby to your community.

If you’re an active member of a religious community or church, there’s usually a pre-defined formal ceremony like a christening or baptism that greets the arrival of a new baby.

But what if you’re not part of an established church? Many civil celebrants now offer baby naming ceremonies which are the non-religious equivalent of a christening.

The arrival of a new baby for those of us who aren’t practising members of a church or religious community can sometimes pose a dilemma: Do I organise a christening or other religion-based ceremony even though I’m not really a church attendee? Will christening my baby make life easier for my child in future – or is this somewhat hypocritical?

Australia’s 2016 Census showed that 52% of Australians identify themselves as Christian. Another 18% belong to other religions, with the remaining 30% percent recording no religion.

According to the National Church Life Survey (2016), only around 18% of Australians are regular churchgoers who attend a service at least once a month. And yet, whilst regular churchgoing numbers are not huge, six in ten people also believe in god or a spirit or a life force. So for many of us, there’s clearly a role for a more spiritual ceremony to welcome our babies.

Many parents put the decision in the too-hard basket – but are left with a nagging feeling that it would have been nice to have some kind of ceremony to welcome the arrival of their child.

Why have a christening?

Traditionally, parents held a christening for their new baby to mark the beginning of their upbringing in the Christian faith. However, many parents now choose to christen their child for other reasons.

Pressure from religious family members is often a factor in holding a christening for your baby. Some parents also christen their child to ensure their registration in a local Christian school, such as the Catholic Systemic Schools or an Independent religious school in Australia. These schools often provide a private education for children which, while not free, don’t attract the high fees of many other exclusive private schools.

And sometimes, it’s all about the dress! In some families, a traditional christening gown handed down through generations is the impetus for having a christening – and for holding the ceremony when the baby is small enough to fit into the gown.

Finally, a christening might be a formal and religious ceremony, but it is also a very legitimate reason to hold a party to celebrate the arrival of your baby.

What does a christening involve?

A christening is a Christian blessing which usually involves baptism. And baptism refers to a ritual where a person (in this case a baby) is initiated into the Church congregation when water is sprinkled or poured over the head of a baby – or, in some cases, when the baby is immersed in water for a second or two.

Baptism usually represents the cleansing of original sin from the baby, and the initiation of the baby into the first of various sacraments of the church in which they are christened. Parents and godparents accept responsibility on the baby’s behalf, for the child’s acceptance of the beliefs of the Church.

Baptism has been used in most Christian christening ceremonies, inspired by Jesus’s own baptism in the River Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist. However, several Christian groups (eg Quakers) don’t practice baptism in a christening.

Baptism of adults is a very old ritual that has existed in various forms in such religions as Judaism for many centuries. While it became part of Christian ritual in the very early days of the church, other religious groups in the first and second century that used baptism included Gnostic spiritualists, rabbinic Jews and Essene sectarians.

However the first mention of infant baptism comes from the early Christian writer Tertullian, circa 200AD, so most scholars believe infant christenings started during the second century AD.

In some churches, a blessing ceremony is held for a new baby but another ceremony similar to a christening occurs when a child is old enough to speak for themselves.

In most cases, a male and female godparent is chosen by the parents. It’s quite an honour to be asked to be a godparent – and it’s a role that carries differing levels of responsibility depending on the church. Generally that person would be a practising member of the church into which the child is christened.

In many cases, the Church will require parents (and also sometimes, godparents) to receive some instructions before the ceremony. You might be required to have a personal session with the priest or pastor or perhaps to attend one or several organised classes.

Do check with the church as soon as possible, what is required beforehand.

When to hold a christening

The actual time and date of the service is usually dictated by the availability of your church, and you’ll also want to check the availability of your chosen godparents.

As to the age of your baby – that really depends on the parents and, to some extent, the requirements of your church.

Fifty years ago it was very common to hold a christening just a couple of weeks after a baby was born. However there is a lot more variety in the age of children being christened these days. Some families will even hold a christening for several siblings, or cousins, at the same time.

Organising a christening

There are a few steps to organising a christening. First of all, you need to work out where the christening will be held. If you are an active churchgoer, you would usually choose to hold the ceremony at your local church.

However if you are not currently attending a local church, you may want to find an appropriate one near your home.

If you have friends with children who attend a church nearby, get some first-hand advice about what to expect and how to arrange it.

Choosing godparents

In the bad old days, a godparent was a person (usually with solid societal status and of relative wealth) who would be a backup for parents and ensure the child received a religious education, if parents were unavailable or if the child was orphaned.

These days, parents often choose close friends to be godparents. A godparent may not be someone with strong religious standing but rather someone who the parents hope will take an interest in their child’s upbringing and development.

Check the requirements of godparents with your church. Some churches require the godparents to attend classes before the ceremony and may require production of their own christening certificate, while others are just happy for godparents to turn up.

The christening service

If you are having a personal christening service rather than joining a communal christening event, ask your guests to arrive with plenty of time to spare so that the event can run on time.

Churches are often in demand for christenings, weddings, funerals and other life and religious events as well as other services, so it’s important you get started on time.

Usually, the priest or reverend will begin the service by inviting parents and godparents to stand around the front. Participants might be given a card or book which includes the responses they will need to provide. Check with your church to find out how long the service will run.

Don’t forget a towel and perhaps a change of clothes for your baby in case they are damp or cold following the water ceremony.

Christening Celebration

After the religious ceremony is held, it is usual to hold a celebration, but the type of event varies widely. Many religious communities hold group christenings and some may also hold a communal morning tea after the event; this can be a very low-stress option for tired new parents. However, mostly the parents are expected to host a function for their visitors.

It really is up to you to decide just how elaborate your baby’s christening will be. A brief morning-tea or afternoon tea function is often sufficient, with light sandwiches and cakes served. If you are holding any kind of function, don’t be afraid to call on friends and family to help with the catering – it’s hard enough being a new parent, without having to hold a big function.

If you can afford outside caterers, go for it – that’s a good way to reduce the stress.

Limit your guest list where possible. When you’re childless, the more really is the merrier – but when you add a new baby into the mix, a too-large function might lead to meltdown!

This article was written by Fran Molloy, journalist and mum of four