Welcoming babies all around the world
Precious babies are celebrated in different ways all over the world. Be inspired by some of the rituals and ceremonies from other cultures described by Sarah Tennant.
Can you imagine a society in which new babies weren't celebrated? I can't. Rejoicing over a new baby is one of the most universal, quintessentially human things we do. Throughout history a newborn has represented all manner of good things - the favour of God, the removal of the curse of barrenness, an heir to a business, estate or kingdom, the swelling of a tribe's strength or a hefty tax deduction. In times and places where childbirth is risky, the survival of mother and baby is another reason to celebrate.
In New Zealand, we tend to focus more on the "aww cute, a baby!" aspect of rejoicing. That doesn't mean we're not excited. For those of us unlikely to win a Nobel Prize or score a book deal, "We had a baby!" probably ranks among the most exciting announcements we'll ever get to make.
But let's face it, Kiwis just aren't great at pomp and ceremony. New Zealand is a fairly young, fairly secular country, full of practical-minded folk who smirk when Americans tear up at their national anthem. A Catholic wedding with a nuptial mass is considered exotic and kind of a yawn-fest; few married couples renew their vows and those who do face disapproving mutters about gift grabs. We're just not very comfortable with ritual.
In keeping with this attitude, our celebrations of newborn babies tend to be scattered and low-key. Visitors show up as soon as they're allowed, drifting into the birthing centre in dribs and drabs while the midwife tut-tuts about Mum needing to sleep.
The parents fill in the birth registration as soon as they've finished arguing over the baby's name, and send it off whenever they get around to it. The baby comes home - in a special outfit, granted, if it hasn't been covered in bodily fluids between the postnatal ward and the car - to be greeted by nobody in particular.
And life goes on. The baby slots into family life - siblings get used to each other, sleeping and feeding issues hopefully sort themselves out and just like that, a family of five is co-existing where there was once a family of four.
Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but it's a little underwhelming. I've talked to several mothers who expressed a "what now?" feeling when left alone with their new babies. Couples who haven't darkened the door of a church for years decide to get their baby christened, in order to experience an official welcome for the baby complete with a keepsake dress and a date scone in the church hall. Others create family traditions - a present for older siblings with every new baby, or an arty black-and-white newborn photo shoot.
Around the world, various cultures have taken the whole thing much more seriously. Baby-welcoming traditions across the globe are a rich mixture of current and abandoned religious beliefs, traditional practices, family loyalty, gift-giving and a love of good food.
Announcing the baby
When my daughter was born in 2008 my parents debated the necessity of putting a birth notice in the newspaper. When my son was born this year, no one even considered it. Facebook and iPhones now mean that parents can send names, vital statistics and photos of their newborn to 400 of their closest friends before the cord has even been cut.
In times past, parents came up with other ways to spread the glad tidings. Ancient Greek parents would decorate their front doors with a strip of woollen cloth to represent the birth of a baby girl or an olive branch for a boy. Mediaeval babies' births were announced with church bells, Victorian ladies attached birth announcements to their calling cards, the ill-fated Romanovs informed the populace of the Tsarevich's birth by firing off a 301-cannon salute - not a method likely to win you friends at the birthing centre.
One particularly lovely tradition hails from the Netherlands where parents announce the baby's arrival and sex at the same time by sending out colour-coded cookies to friends and family. Auckland mum Hannah van Ballegooy describes her take on the tradition: "We celebrated Reuben's birth with the Dutch tradition of eating beschuit met muisjes. Beschuit are circular crispbreads and muisjes are like sprinkles. They are aniseeds with a coloured hard sugary coating - pink and white for girls, blue and white for boys. They are named muisjes (little mice) as the aniseeds have wee 'tails' that sticks out of the little sugary ball, making it look like a tiny mouse. In Holland, little children take the beschuits covered with the appropriate sprinkles to school or kindy to share following the birth of a sibling."
Choosing a name
Naming a baby is complex at the best of times. Most people have their own system of self-imposed rules, ranging from "nothing too trendy" to "check the initials don't spell acronyms for known terrorist groups".
For religious parents, choosing names can be trickier. Catholic babies are generally given Biblical or saints' names. European Jews traditionally name their babies after deceased relatives, while Sephardic Jews name theirs after living relatives. Greek Orthodox babies are typically named after their grandparents. And according to some authorities, Hindu boys should be given names with two or four syllables; Hindu girls, names with three syllables that end in a long vowel.
Additionally, many Asian cultures choose baby names based on astrological considerations. In Thailand, parents must be careful not to choose a name used by any member of the royal family; in Denmark, parents must select their baby name from a list of 7000 pre-approved names or seek special permission from the government. The names cannot be gender-neutral and parents cannot assign a surname as a first name. Unusual spellings of common names are often rejected.
If that sounds complicated, at least those parents get to choose! Parents in the Wikmungkan tribe of Aboriginal Australia don't. Instead, while the mother pushes the baby out the midwife chants the names of the family's living relatives. Whichever name she is speaking as the placenta is delivered becomes the baby's name.
The Yoruba tribe in Nigeria has a particularly fascinating method of name selection. Babies frequently come into the world with predestined names, based on the circumstances of their birth. Thus, twin babies will always be given the same names, in order of birth; the baby born after the twins will have a prescribed name as well, and the baby after that. The Yoruba have set names for babies born breech or "sunny-side up", babies born tangled in the cord, and babies conceived before the mother resumed menstruation after her previous birth.
With high rates of infant mortality, Yoruba women who have lost previous children give their babies names intended to protect them. Princess Ademide of Benin, in her essay on Yoruba culture, lists some poignant names given by women to babies following losses. Banjoko means "stay with me"; Malomo, "do not go again". Kosoko means "there is no hoe any more", referring to the tool used to dig a grave.
In later life, Yoruba babies gain an extra name - a "praise name" intended to bestow virtues or blessing on the baby. Adding names later in life is not unique to Yoruba culture. Chinese parents historically fooled jealous spirits by giving their child a "milk name" to be used throughout childhood. Often the name was ugly or downright insulting, in order to trick the spirits into thinking the child wasn't worth messing with.
Children in non-English-speaking countries often take an English name if they emigrate or when they reach a certain level of education. Whatever the name, bestowing it on the baby often happens ceremonially. In Egypt, the child is named at seven days old in a ceremony called a sebou. Egyptians claim the sebou dates back to the time of the Pharaohs and the rituals are geared around protecting the baby from evil spirits.
Dressed in a new outfit, the baby is placed in a cradle or, oddly enough, a large sieve filled with seeds or corn and taken on a tour of the family home, followed by children bearing candles. Then a number of rituals are performed. The baby is gently shaken and rocked in the sieve while family members make loud noises to accustom the baby to the motion and sounds of everyday life. The mother steps sideways seven times over the baby to ward off evil spirits, a knife is placed briefly on the baby's body and the mother is sprinkled with salt.
If the family is Muslim, a ritual sacrifice of goats may be performed and the meat served to guests, along with treats such as candies and nougat. The sebou is also the occasion for circumcision for boys and ear-piercing for girls.
Even in New Zealand, it's common enough for Anglican and Catholic parents to choose godparents, who are officially charged with the child's spiritual wellbeing and the task of raising the baby if both parents drive off a cliff.
In Latvia, the godparents have rather more immediate duties. Latvian baby girls get two godmothers and a godfather; baby boys, two godfathers and a godmother. These are chosen with care, as the child is supposed to inherit their spiritual qualities. Between them, the godparents have to participate in a two-day baptism and naming ritual called a Krustaba which combines Christian and pagan beliefs.
The naming takes place nine days after birth, ideally in a sacred grove of trees, or at some other natural landmark such as a spring or a boulder. A priest holds the baby in water and asks the godparents if they will accept her; they agree, take her out of the water and choose her name. Later they must perform a ceremonial dance with the baby - and do it well, because their nimbleness and agility is thought to pass to the child. On the second day of the ceremony, the godparents lead the guests into the woods in search of a long, straight branch to make the cradle pole. Before placing the baby in the cradle, several objects are put inside - bread and coins for prosperity, a page of a book for wisdom and a stone to protect against black magic.
Visiting the baby
These days, it's a brave parent who dares tell her family and friends not to visit as soon as the baby is born. While midwives try to protect mothers from an endless stream of visitors, grandparents in particular tend to feel it's their right to meet the baby as soon as possible.
Some cultures have strict protocols on who gets to meet the new baby and when. Although this custom is now fading, at one point Sarajevo women were visited only by married female relatives for the six weeks after birth, and the visitors were required to bring along a loaf of bread and two eggs as a gift. Everyone else had to wait for the baptism, the baby's first public appearance.
A common theme in many societies is the fear that evil spirits, the evil eye or jealous gods will harm a newborn. Thus, in places as diverse as China, Hawaii, Egypt, Nepal and Turkey it is bad form for visitors to praise a baby. In China, guests pass on compliments by insulting the feature they wish to praise - instead of saying, "What gorgeous chubby legs", a cunning visitor will say, "Look at his runty little stick legs." (A brilliant idea, as it solves the whole question of how to admire an ugly baby.)
Sing a song
Parents all around the world compose nonsense songs for their children. Historically, Maori parents went one better. A high-born Maori child was sung a personalised oriori. The word "oriori" is often translated as "lullaby", but these aren't cute going-to-sleep songs or nursery rhymes. Oriori are sophisticated educational songs designed to teach a child about her lineage and spiritual heritage. As the child hears the oriori throughout babyhood and beyond, she slowly absorbs Maori theology, pride in her ancestors' accomplishments and the hopes and good wishes of her family.
Oriori are less widely composed today, but many Maori parents find a way to incorporate and update the tradition. Some play simple, somewhat de-personalised oriori such as the beautiful "Hine E Hine" while giving birth. Christchurch-based musician Ariana Tikao, whose partner recited a traditional oriori as she gave birth to their second child, has released a te reo CD called Whaea (Motherhood), mixing traditional chants, an oriori by Keri Kaa and elements of hiphop and dub.