Seventeen Interesting Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Christenings

A christening, or baptism, marks the start of a child’s journey with God and membership in the Church. The ceremony is rooted in ancient traditions, some of which may surprise you. Here are 17 interesting facts about christenings.

1. Christening is the practice of inducting a child into the Christian faith

The purpose of christening is to enrol a child into the Church. It’s applied to small children, and is generally combined with the bestowal of the child’s name. It incorporates the child’s baptism with water.

Infant baptism arose as a universal practice during the Christian conquest of the pagan world. This was done to cement the position of the Christian church, and to address the concept of original sin – sin inherent in every human being.

Infant baptism gave adults a stake in the child’s faith, as it required them to make promises on behalf of a child too young to make their own, and to follow through by upholding Christian faith and traditions. This remains the function of the christening rite today.


2. The term ‘christening’ is English in origin

Christening is a traditional English word meaning to ‘become a member of the Christian church’. It’s derived from the Old English cristnian, to ‘make Christian’, and was first recorded in about 1200AD. The use of the term to refer to the naming of a person or object is not strictly correct, but can trace its origins back almost as far.

3. Christening is different from baptism

The word baptism comes from the Greek baptizein, which means ‘to be immersed in water’. Baptism, like christening, is the welcoming of an individual into the church. Indeed baptism takes place as part of the christening ritual. However, baptism requires the individual to commit to a life course of their own free will, something that can’t be done by a young child. Thus, the christening ceremony came about as one appropriate for a child. Christening allows for promises made at baptism to be made on behalf of the individual, where that individual is too young to understand them themselves.

There’s also the nature of sin to be washed away. Baptism was designed to wash away all pre-baptismal sin, whilst christening washes away ‘original’ sin. After all, there’s little sin that a newborn child can have committed.


4. It’s possible to be baptised on your deathbed

Last minute conversion to Christianity has a great deal of historical precedent, particularly at times of religious upheaval. It can be seen as an attempt to embrace Christianity and repent from a lifetime of sin, but has also been done for the wrong reasons in the past. In the early days of Christianity it was commonplace to defer baptism until the last, so that the individual involved could continue to live the lifestyle they desired before adopting the stricter Christian standards. It also removed the problem of having to deal with post-baptismal sins through penance.

The impact of this on the development of christening is simple. For the vast majority of Christian history, children have suffered an extremely high mortality rate. Until relatively recently, it was not uncommon for a newborn child to die within a couple of weeks of birth, so a rapid christening was essential to bring the child to faith before death. Waiting for the child to be old enough to undergo ordinary baptism was not an option.

5. Christening is multi-denominational

Surprisingly if you’re christened into one part of Christianity, the Catholic Church for instance, your christening will remain equally valid should you decide to enter a different denomination, such as the Church of England.

This is the natural result of all Christian denominations’ universal belief that you can only be christened once, so if individuals converting between faiths are forced to undergo christening again it would negate that belief. Therefore, a simple profession of faith is normal when entering a new church. So whether you’re Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Lutheran and you wish to join a different congregation, your christening remains valid. It really is a ‘once in a lifetime’ rite.

6. Baptism can be carried out by anyone

Whilst it’s generally accepted that baptism or christening should be carried out by an ordained priest, it’s a unique rite in that, in extremis, can be carried out by anybody. If an individual is in imminent danger of death, anybody who has already been baptised can carry out the ceremony. This is called an emergency baptism.

The name of the individual should be given, with the words; ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ Water is poured over the individual’s head and the Lord’s Prayer recited. The person who administers the baptism must inform the local parish priest so it can be recorded. This act can be carried out at birth too, if a child’s life is in danger.


7. There’s no age limit for a christening

A christening is simply designed so a child who has not sinned, and can’t, in good faith, make promises that binds them for the rest of their life, can be baptised.

Baptism is the principal purpose of christening so technically there’s no upper age limit. However, it would be expected that by the age of about seven, a child would be able to speak fluently enough and have the knowledge required to make the promises for themselves. When that becomes the case, baptism is deemed more appropriate.

8. Godparents are an essential requirement

Not so much these days, but in past times the true role of the godparents was to take responsibility for bringing up the child should the child’s parents die. Godparents were nominated by the parents with this in mind, and would often be those who were physically close and able to take on that responsibility as quickly and easily as possible.

Nowadays the emphasis of godparents is much more about giving the child access to another adult who will help to guide them through the bigger issues of life including their faith. In many denominations, religious guidance is a key requirement to ensure the child lives a life of observance of their faith. However they can also be good fun to stay with over the school holidays!


9. There should be three godparents

Often people will simply appoint close friends, usually a couple, as godparents to their child. However, strictly speaking, there should be three godparents. This is customary across most Christian denominations.

It’s usually considered that to give a child the very best support growing up, two godparents of the same sex as the child and one of the opposite sex should be appointed. There are few other rules around who can become a godparent, suffice it to say that they must themselves be baptised and have a good moral standing.

10. Christening is not the child’s official naming ceremony

Traditionally, christening was the naming ceremony for a child, when its name would be written in the church records. It happened at the earliest possible point in a child’s life, and began their lifetime’s appearances in the written record.

Now things have changed and, in an increasingly secular world, the process of recording a population of multiple faiths is much more of a legal process. Naming of the child is generally undertaken when the birth is first registered, long before a member of the clergy would set eyes on the child in an official capacity. Indeed, religious rites move a little further down the process, as they reduce in importance among an ever-more agnostic society.

11. Naming traditions remain rooted in the Christian faith

The role of christening in the child’s naming may have diminished, but religious considerations remain strong in the selection of the name.

In the Christian tradition, children take the family name, or surname, of their parents, as well as a given, or first, name, commonly referred to as a Christian name. In some Christian cultures it’s usual to give the child a personal name as well as one with strong Christian connotations, such as versions of ‘John’ or ‘Mary.’ The order in which these first names are given may vary, but the practice remains common.

12. In some countries the godparents choose the name

It would be wrong to assume there’s one particularly Christian way of doing things. In many places, Christianity has adapted to take account of pre-existing cultures, an important tactic when converting a new society. In others, customs have changed over time according to the necessities of the local population.

Therefore customs differ from country to country according to local culture. For example in Latvia, it’s traditional for the godparents to choose the child’s name rather than the parents. It’s also believed that the child will inherit the godparents’ best qualities, so it’s important to choose them with great care!

Other countries have slightly different traditions and interpretations around the ceremony, but the essential core beliefs remain universal among Christians.

13. Anyone can have a christening service

It hasn’t always been so. Time was that christening was reserved only for the offspring of the most pious true believers, whilst those of looser morals had to seek considerable penance to automatically enrol their children in the church. Times change though, and as society changes the church no longer has such power over people’s lives. It has had to adapt.

Even so, the extent of that adaptation varies by denomination. Many churches are increasingly welcoming of all babies, children and families, whatever shape that family is. These days, you don’t have to be married to christen your child. In many cases you don’t even have to be active churchgoers, though it might be polite to show your face occasionally.


14. There’s no secular equivalent of a christening

It’s not uncommon today to have a secular wedding or funeral – a service where the church isn’t present and where there’s no religious element at all. However, unlike virtually every other major religious ceremony, christening has no secular equivalent. This is simply because it’s the acceptance of a child into the church, so what would be the purpose of a secular ceremony?

15. A christening always takes place in a church

Well, almost. As stated above, christening is a peculiarly religious ceremony so there’s little point in holding it anywhere else. Unlike a wedding, which has civil meaning around property law, the christening of a child is about bringing that individual into the church and the Christian communion, so where’s better to have it than a church?

There is however one exception. It’s perfectly acceptable for a child to be christened on board a ship. In times past, before air travel, this was a simple and necessary expedient for a child born on a long sea voyage that could last many months. The ship’s captain would officiate in the absence of a priest, and traditionally the upturned ships bell would be used as a font.


16. The ceremony should take place on a Sunday

Christenings are usually held as part of the normal Sunday service. The congregation assembles around the font as the ceremony takes place, then return to their seats for the rest of the service. Sometimes there may be more than one christening carried out on the same occasion.

In some parishes, the vicar may favour a special service on Sunday afternoon, or be persuadable if the parents want a private ceremony. However it’s usual for the service to take place on a Sunday, during or after the main public service.

17. It’s traditional to plant a tree

In some countries and Christian traditions, it’s customary to plant a tree to mark the birth of a new child. In Switzerland, an apple tree is planted if the child is male and a nut tree if it’s a girl. This is a tradition that’s rapidly spreading around the western world. With an increase in environmental awareness and a diminishing of rigid Christian adherence, the simple act of planting a tree as a permanent commemoration of the child’s birth is a sensible and beautiful thing to do.


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