How to Have a Traditional Christening
The birth of a new baby in the late nineteenth century was announced in various ways; there were no set rules of etiquette for making the announcement. Sometimes engraved cards bearing the baby’s name and date of birth were sent by themselves in small envelopes; other times, they were inserted in an envelope with the mother's visiting-card—these were hand-written instead of engraved.
A simpler form of announcement was simply the mother's visiting-card with the new baby’s name and the date of birth written under the name of the mother. One of the more elegant customs of announcing a birth to all who would be interested was to send small engraved cards—for a girl cards 1-1/2 by 1-1/4 inches, almost square, and for a boy l by 2 inches in size—with the name in the center, and the date of the birth in the lower left corner. These cards would be attached to the mother's visiting-card by a piece of white baby ribbon which was inserted through a hole made in the top of both cards and tied in a tiny neat bow.
The announcements would be sent out when baby and mother were ready to receive visitors, generally about two weeks after the baby's birth. At this time, the mother and her new addition were on exhibition, so to speak, for certain hours in the afternoon when visitors would be likely to call, and would be dressed to receive—the mother in a pretty dainty house-gown, and the baby in a fresh white robe. Of course, Victorian gentlemen did not call upon the new mother at all, but paid their respects to the father, and then asked after both mother and child. Any friend of either sex could send flowers or fruits at such times to the “sick-room.”
Centuries ago it was the custom to present those who called to congratulate the happy parents of a new baby with a kind of spiced oatmeal gruel flavored with Madeira, and known as “Caudle.” The old English custom was to have this beverage served three days after the arrival of the little stranger; it was served in china cups, used solely for these occasions, with a handle on each side, so that they could easily be passed from one guest to another. These caudle cups were often handed down in families as heirlooms. In the late nineteenth century, these caudle parties were re-introduced in some places. The caudle was generally offered when the infant was about six weeks old. The new mother received her friends in a tea gown or some pretty convalescent wrap, very often made of velvet or plush cut in the form of a belted-in jacket and skirt, or in one long princess robe, elaborately trimmed with cascades of lace down the front. The baby was, of course, shown, but not handled. Some parents would have the christening and the caudle party together.
When to Christen
The time chosen for a christening or baptism was usually when the child was between four and six weeks old. The ceremony, at times, was performed in church, with friends and family invited afterwards to the house for a breakfast or luncheon, as in the case of a wedding; but just as often the clergyman was requested to baptize the child at its own home. In England the birth of children in the higher ranks of society was announced through the papers, but only occasionally was this done in America. The invitation was written or engraved on heavy dull-white cards, and when sent, called for a response.
In the upper class, godfathers and godmothers were often chosen for their long friendship to the parents, their social position, and their banking account—the latter two attributes were very important to the small stranger beginning life's journey. A father could not ask a man in a much higher social position than himself to look after the “spiritual” welfare of his boy or girl unless he was a friend of his, and not merely an acquaintance; and this, of course, applied to ladies of higher social grade than the parents as well. The persons most likely to advance the child in life were usually chosen.
Nevertheless, at times the selection of the godparents fell upon the near relatives for this was thought to be a relationship that often lasts through life; the grandparents of the newborn were sometimes sponsors. A note was sent to the persons who were chosen for godparents, and it was considered a breach of etiquette to refuse to act as a child's sponsor unless there were very urgent and obvious reasons for not doing so. It was considered a compliment to be asked to stand as a sponsor.
The giving of at least one handsome present was thought necessary; often people continued to “remember” their godchildren until their death—these lucky ones often discovered that they were remembered in the will. The godfather and godmother generally gave some little present—a silver cup or porringer, knife-fork-and-spoon, silver basin, coral and bells, or coral tooth-cutter were typical gifts; but it was not unheard of for a wealthy godfather to make a valuable investment for the child, particularly if he bore the name of the godfather.
Church Christening Ceremony
The father and mother, accompanied by the nurse and infant, would arrive at the church punctually at the time named in the invitation. There they were met by the clergyman, the sponsors, and the other guests. Gathering around the font, the christening then proceeded quickly. In a church ceremony, the infant was carried to the font by the nurse or an elderly lady, the sponsors following, the parents last. The godfather stood at the right of the child, the godmother at the left. The clergyman would ask —“Who is the sponsor for this child?” The godparents would bow silently, thus acknowledging themselves to be the ones. The clergyman then asked the child's intended name, which was spoken in a clear, distinct voice. To prevent any misunderstanding of the name, sometimes it was written on a slip of paper and handed to the clergyman before the ceremony began. Directly after the ceremony, the party would return to the house of the parents, where a breakfast or luncheon was served to which all were invited, including the officiating clergyman and his wife. As soon as possible, the baby was sent back to the nursery.
A Christening at Home
For the child christened at home, the decorations displayed would be all white with rooms decked-out with flowers as profusely as possible. In the cities, florists would loan daisy plants, Easter lilies, palms, and ferns for a daylight entertainment at half the price charged when the plants were to be subjected to the harmful effects of gas of the evening hours. In the country, rooms were decorated with sprays and small branches of apple blossom or lilies-of-the-valley. The bowl that contained the water for baptismal purposes was placed on a raised plateau with dainty white flowers grouped around it.
When the guests arrived they were welcomed by a member of the family. If the function was informal the mother and godparents would be present to receive; but at a more formal affair they did not enter the room until the minister in his robes had taken his place before an improvised font, just before the baby was brought in. The mother, even though quite young, would not dress entirely in white at the christening of her child, but she would wear a pretty tea gown in cream or very pale colors; the guests came in visiting dress. If in summer, the ladies invited and the godmother wore much the same kind of costumes as at a wedding, and would, of course, retain their bonnets during breakfast. In winter, handsome dark velvets and furs would be worn, the thicker wraps being left in the hall on returning to the house.
When the clergyman arrived and the guests were comfortably disposed about the drawing-room, the nurse, carrying the baby, entered the room, followed by the parents and godparents. The party would then stand before the clergyman, who would be waiting to receive them, the baby being the center of the group. When the clergyman reached that portion of the service in which he must take the child in his arms, the godmother would take the infant from the nurse and hand it to the clergyman, repeating in distinct tones the name which the baby was to be given. When the child was sprinkled with the holy water, and the final prayer said, the godmother would again take the infant in her arms and hold it until the conclusion of the ceremony. After the ceremony the baby was on exhibition for awhile, but not too long. When the infant was carried away, the refreshments were served.
Music played an important part in a home christening. Singing by a quartette generally drawn from intimate friends or relatives enhanced the gathering. Some beautiful and famous lullaby or religious music was often sung at such an event. Harper’s Bazaar tells of a duet from a George MacDonald poem sung by a new mother at the piano and a young voice behind a screen of flowers— it began with the mother asking the question, “Where did you come from, baby dear?” and the answer given by the voice (behind the flowers) of a little girl about ten years old.
The ceremony of baptism was performed gratuitously, but the parents, if able, would make a present of a sum of money to the officiating clergyman, or else donate it through him, to the poor of the parish, or some church work. A carriage was always sent for the clergyman to convey him to the house.
Victorian babies were always dressed in white for a christening, as an emblem of purity and innocence. This christening dress was the subject of many hours of anxious thought. The white embroidered or lace gown would usually have some family or other associations. The infant christening dress was lace trimmed with a short waist, a very long skirt, and short sleeves tied with satin ribbons. The ensemble often included a white satin hat or bonnet, and large white cloak of satin or cashmere.
An alternative to the long and elaborate christening gown was the porte-bebe. This was a pocket-like contrivance said to be comfortable for the child, thus eliminating a fussy and crying guest-of-honor. The infant could lie at ease on the pretty lace-trimmed pillow with its tiny limbs slipped into a sort of pocket formed by a daintily ornamented coverlid attached to the pillow on three sides. A wide satin ribbon was tied around the tiny bundle, its ends meeting in a bow at the child's waist.
Gifts for the Child
Christening presents, usually sent a day beforehand, were placed on a table in the drawing-room where they could be seen, with the names of the givers attached on a card or slip of paper. The presents usually given took the form of plate—silver mugs, forks, knives, spoons, tea-pots, milk jugs, sugar basins, coffee pots, cake baskets, claret jugs, and other articles of value.
Christening Breakfast or Luncheon
The gathering after the ceremony would range from small and intimate to large and celebratory. Sometimes it was enough to have tea and chocolate with sandwiches and cake. A more elaborate buffet would have a table attractively decorated all in white — with Easter lilies, tall white candles without shades and pretty menus put about. The lunch, or breakfast, would be very much the same in character and the way of being served as a wedding breakfast; that is to say, there would be soup, hot and cold entrees, poultry, game, sweets, jellies, creams, ices, and fruit. The usual light wines were provided—Champagne, claret, sherry, and sauterne. At some celebrations, only white cakes, bonbons, and other desserts would be served.
One time-honored tradition was to present each guest with a tiny white bonbonniere, upon which the baby's name was traced in silver or gold. The boxes would contain bonbons but the top layer would be of small smooth sugar almonds, known as “dragees de bapteme.”
Nevertheless, some families preferred to give a christening dinner, which was a more sophisticated and social event, in which the sponsors and guests would separate at the church door after the conclusion of the religious ceremony, but then return in the evening for an elaborate dinner.
Victorian Christening Menu
The following menu was offered by The Ladies Home Journal in 1892 for a christening breakfast or luncheon; everything served was white but the coffee. The table decorations for this repast were also entirely of white, and the china used was of white and gold.
Cream of Oyster Soup
Sweetbread Patties in White Cases
Supreme de Volatile
Potato Balls, Cream Sauce
Cauliflower, White Dressing
Celery Salad, White Mayonnaise Dressing
Wafers and Neuchâtel Cheese
Meringue Glace (individual)
This article was compiled from 19th century publications:
Harper's Bazaar, issues from 1885-1899
The Ladies Home Journal, issues from 1889-1894
Polite Society at Home and Abroad, 1891
Images: Library of Congress
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