This article was first published in JUNO magazine, edition 31, Spring 2013
The need to name: holding a baby naming ceremony
The need to name
On the birth of our son we were keen to celebrate his arrival in a formal but non-religious ceremony, shared amongst family and friends. My husband and I are spiritual people, who believe our son should be provided the opportunity to develop his own spiritual or secular ideas about life as he grows. A naming ceremony was therefore ideal. It enabled us to welcome Ewan into his community in a unique way whilst including all our guests, regardless of their own belief system. Having made this decision, we began planning the practicalities of the day and exploring its deeper meaning.
Communities seek to name and announce their newest members in a huge variety of ways. A child’s name is significant in many societies. The image of a parent holding its newborn to the sky, sun or moon and repeating his name transcends time, place and culture. It can be that simple, or it can be an elaborate affair, involving the whole community. In the UK it is traditional to hold a Christening, but as we become a more secular society naming ceremonies are growing in popularity. For our family it was a deep spiritual need to present Ewan to the earth, for the world to recognise him.
‘It takes a village to raise a child’
This African proverb became a fitting choice for the planning and running of the ceremony, as well as for Ewan’s upbringing. We included on the inside cover of the order of ceremony booklets. The day was raised from an idea to an actuality thanks to the massive efforts of so many! The British Humanist Society’s (BHA) ‘New Arrivals’ booklet proved invaluable to us, providing sample ceremonies, suggested readings and music. We support Humanist philosophy, which celebrates humanity and our human values in order to help each other and the world. My brother, a member of the BHA, offered to be the celebrant. We were fortunate to have a family member to take on this role, which involved leading the ceremony. However, many families arrange for a registered celebrant to host their event; they can be hired from the BHA, at the local registrar’s office or by some commercial organisations.
Naming ceremonies can be held anywhere, including at the local registrar’s office, in a commercial venue or at home. We decided to hold ours in the local village hall, a great way to connect with our local community whilst providing a more formal environment than home. This venue offered the sixty guests, including fifteen children, enough room to relax, eat and socialise. Having access to the kitchen enabled us to host a communal meal, with each guest offering a dish of food. The buffet became the focal point to the party and a wonderful way of involving everyone.
Planning for the big day took a lot of time. Using the expertise of family members guaranteed the involvement of many and the creation of a very personal occasion. It also kept costs low. For instance, my mother-in-law made some lovely bunting and my Aunty made two naming cakes, one from the top tier of our wedding cake (saved from the year before!). Every guest offered their support through their presence and brought some delicious homemade food to add to the communal feast.
If you feel it is too much to go it alone, you can always enlist the help of a professional organisation whilst still retaining your own personal touch. Equally, a naming ceremony can be a far smaller, more informal gathering if this is what you desire.
A communal naming
We began by welcoming all of our guests, some of whom had travelled a long way to share this day. To have everyone in the same place at the same time was absolutely wonderful. The ceremony included four readings, including a collective reading of ‘A Celtic Blessing’ (anon) and a communal naming. My brother-in-law sang ‘Everything Possible’ by Fred Small, whilst all the guests sang the chorus, which included the lyrics ‘You can be whoever you want to be’; exactly our hopes for Ewan. This communal aspect ensured everyone was included. The ‘New Beginnings’ booklet and Susannah Steele’s poetry and reading anthology were both really useful resources, containing a large number of relevant poems, blessings and songs.
We asked my good friend Kate to be Ewan’s supporting adult, a role similar to that of a godparent. The term is suggested by the BHA, but mentor, special adult or supporter can also be used. In the ceremony Kate read a poem and formally vowed to; ‘offer friendship and sanctuary to Ewan, protecting him from harm, listening to him, encouraging and supporting him’. She was delighted to be asked and takes this role seriously.
To end the ceremony my husband and I shared our parental vows, which included; ‘we shall strive to provide Ewan with a warm, happy, secure yet adventurous childhood, where he can explore the natural world as freely as possible, and where he will be supported to develop his own opinions and beliefs about life’.
As difficult as it was to put our commitment into words, it was fantastic to share these promises. Ewan was then formally named, marked with the lighting of a candle. This symbolised the love we have for Ewan and the hopes our guests have for his future. Whilst it is not necessary to make formal vows or light a candle, most people like to mark the occasion in some special, symbolic way, be that planting a tree, giving the child a flower or singing a communal song.
A little advice
In our society it is not uncommon for members of the same family to hold differing beliefs. It can be tricky to ensure we embrace these differences without offending anyone. My father, who is a Christian, asked if he could bless Ewan by asking God to protect him. I was happy and comfortable in agreeing to him making a personal religious blessing because I knew how important that was to him.
As Becky Alexander advises ‘naming ceremonies are still fairly new in the UK so you might need to explain to friends and family how it is going to work’. For instance, a few of our guests mistakenly assumed the ceremony would be held on a Sunday, the day when Christenings take place. Also, there was some confusion about how formal the occasion would be because many people asked for advice about what to wear!
Time to party!
After the formal ceremony we celebrated with the communal buffet, cake cutting, toast and closing communal song. The children raced around the room high as kites, whilst the adults chatted and ate together, looking at the photos on the walls. We toasted Ewan’s future life, finishing by singing ‘You are my sunshine’ (by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell). Ewan was held and admired by everyone, unaware of how special this day was to his family. As the guests began to leave, we tidied away and walked home, where we opened presents, drank cups of tea and relaxed.
At the end of this wonderful day we were all ready to collapse! We had invested so much into this day, but it was well worth the effort, rewarding to see something we had created come together so well. It was a memorable, very special day and a fitting way to announce Ewan’s arrival into the world.
If you decide to hold a naming ceremony, I wish you lots of luck in doing so and hope this account has provided you with a few ideas.
‘New Arrivals: A practical guide to non-religious baby naming’. Jayne Wynne Willson and Robert Ashby. British Humanist Association.
‘The complete guide to baby naming ceremonies’. Becky Alexander. How to Books Ltd.
To read more about naming ceremonies see post ‘The need to name part two’, where I discuss our daughter’s naming ceremony