13 Jun 2024

Birth Rituals

Rituals around the birth of a baby are changing as society becomes less religious. Some of us choose to forego any formal ritual at all, preferring to “wet the baby’s head” with a celebratory drink, shared with friends and family, soon after the birth. Some people still opt for a traditional christening; those of us who seek a ritual but do not want a religious dimension may choose a naming ceremony. Whatever the ritual, the emphasis is on celebrating the new arrival, and on parents and other key adults (godparents, grandparents, special friends) publicly stating their commitment to the child’s welfare in the years to come.

Religious Ceremonies

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church refer officially to baptism or infant baptism. Both churches prefer the baby to be baptised during a regular Sunday service, often at the same time as other families. If the baptism is during morning service or mass, it will usually be followed by a lunch.

It is still possible to have a private christening in a church of your choice, although it may take some tact and perseverance. If you have a special relationship with a priest or vicar from a different parish, who is for instance a family friend, then you will need to clear the arrangements with the local parish priest or vicar. Private christenings are often in the afternoon and followed by a tea, but this will be dictated by the local church’s timetable.

During the baptism service, the parents and godparents gather with the baby (traditionally wearing a white gown) and the vicar, usually around the church’s font, to make a series of religious declarations. The vicar marks the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, then pours some water on the child’s head, symbolising the washing away of all sin. If the ceremony is taking place during a normal service, the congregation may join in at this point. During the ceremony the mother usually holds the baby, but the godmother may hold the baby at some point. The register is signed after the ceremony, usually by the father.

•Invitations to Christenings

Notification to godparents, friends and family may be by post, telephone call or email and will include mention of any party afterwards. Traditionally, formal invitations were not sent out for christenings or baptisms, but some parents do choose to send them. These are either pre-printed or bespoke cards; the style of the invitation should reflect the level of formality of the service and party.

Traditionally-styled invitations would be used to signal a formal event. They are usually printed on high-quality white card (600 gsm), measuring W7 x H5½ inches (14 x 18 cm). The wording should read:

Alexander and Eliza Waldergrave
Invite you to celebrate the christening of
Maisie Amelia
at St Luke’s Church, Little Gidding
on Sunday 29th September
and afterwards at The Old Rectory

11.00am Service

12.30pm Lunch

Pre-printed cards are available with spaces left blank for the guests’ names, the baby’s name, and the date, location and time of the christening, to be handwritten.

Guests should reply to invitations promptly. The level of formality of the reply should reflect the style and tone of the invitation. If a very formal invitation is received, it is advisable to reply in the third person, as for a wedding invitation.


Parties after the service may include a lunch (possibly a buffet), or tea in the case of an afternoon ceremony. The party is usually fairly informal and not prolonged, as the baby’s routine needs to be considered. It is best to have any party fairly near the church, whether it is in a hotel or similar venue, or a private house.

Drinks are served, most usually champagne and wine, as well as tea or coffee and soft drinks. Traditionally the top layer of the wedding cake was saved and re-iced to use as a christening cake. Or you may choose to order a christening cake, which is usually a fruit cake with marzipan and icing, sometimes with bespoke ‘baby themed’ decorations.  A godparent may toast the baby, but long speeches are unusual.

It is likely that guests will bring presents, so it is advisable to have somewhere to put these, but not necessary to open them there and then. Thank-you letters should be sent promptly.

The guests may well bring small children of their own or the baby may have siblings and cousins, so it is a good idea to make some provision. If possible, enlist the help of an older sibling or cousin to supervise and entertain the children, lay on child-friendly food, and organise a play area for them.

Large parties for christenings are unusual. The essential guests are the godparents, grandparents, the parents’ siblings, and perhaps the godparents of the baby’s siblings and the closest family friends. Cousins will not always be included, nor will neighbours or friends, even very close friends. Godparents are usually accompanied by a spouse or partner. It is polite to invite the clergyman and spouse to any party or reception (although they may not be able to come).

Photographs in church should always be non-invasive and cleared beforehand with the vicar or priest.

•Dress Codes

It is correct to dress smartly, with men in suits, or a jacket and tie, and women in dresses and jackets but not necessarily hats (although it is not wrong to wear one). It is no longer necessary for women to cover their heads in Catholic churches though some may choose to do so. Men should remove hats.

The baby may wear a traditional christening robe, which may be a family heirloom, but these may not always fit larger babies. White is traditional and a dress and shawl look best – there are specialist companies that make modern versions.

Naming Rituals

Naming ceremonies are a non-religious option for parents who wish to celebrate, in some official capacity, the arrival of their child with family and friends. They have no legal standing but may be organised in association with a local authority, or through a private company. Parents do not need to be married and can come from any cultural background with any or no spiritual or religious beliefs. Any parent or legal guardian can make the arrangements.

These ceremonies are often led by a trained celebrant and, instead of godparents, individuals are asked to be “supporting adults”.  During the ceremony parents and supporting adults both make promises (usually about the love and care they will offer the child). They may also include a reading or two – every naming ceremony is unique and tailored to individual requirements and registrars or celebrants will provide guidance. A certificate is usually presented as a keepsake. It is usual for the parents to host a reception for guests after the ceremony with some food, drinks and a naming cake (similar to a christening cake).

Many parents now choose to host a naming day or naming party themselves, as a non-religious alternative to a christening. The format of the day will vary from family to family, but a lunch for family and close friends is a popular option. It is usual for guests to take a present for the baby, as they would to a christening.

There is no dress code for naming ceremonies, either for the guests or the baby. Usually, the baby will be dressed in a smart outfit, perhaps with a delicate shawl, and most guests will make an effort to look smart and respectful.

Top: The Lily Font at the christening of Victoria, Princess Royal, 10 February 1841, Charles Robert Leslie


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