The Name-Giving Ceremony

The name-giving ceremony is generally associated with baptism in Western culture. The term baptism originates from the Greek term baptizein meaning ‘to dip’ or ‘to bathe’. Baptism, specifically the ceremony of admitting a person to the Christian community, is a sacrament of the Christian Church and is performed by applying water in various ways for the remission of sin. This predominantly takes the form of immersion in water or the sprinkling of water over the head. 

Besides being a sacrament, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language also describes baptism as ‘…to cleanse spiritually, initiate or dedicate by purifying’. Regarding baptism, the Wordsworth Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions states, ‘The practice of cleansing by water was known in some pre-Christian religions, where it represented transformation, promising immortality or regeneration’. Hence, spiritual purification by water was a pagan rite long before the spread of Christianity. 

Water from seas, rivers, fountains, wells, rain, or dew has universally been used as a symbol of cleansing and invigorating the spirit. In this sense, baptism is a common observance found in all cultures. The purification of sin by water pertains to the religions of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. Among all nations on earth, from the very earliest times, water has been used as a religious sacrament and has been linked with magical properties and spiritual cleansing. Every major religion in the world uses water in its rites, and all societies know of the healing properties of magic lakes, wells, and springs. The rites of cleansing with water universally represent transformation, regeneration, and immortality. Water was the element by which everything was reborn and re-created, hence the ceremony of dipping, plunging, or immersing. Ritual washing and cleansing is practised in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and the Islamic faith.

The name-giving ceremony has from ancient times been universally linked with ritual cleansing by water. In India, Mongolia, and Tibet, Buddhists celebrate the birth of a child in the presence of a priest, burning incense and candles at a domestic altar and intoning prescribed prayers, while dipping the child in water and imposing on it a name. 

The ancient Persians carried their newborn infants to the temple to be blessed by a priest, purified by water, and for the father of the child to bestow a name on the infant during the ceremony. Similarly, the ancient Etruscans performed the rite of baptism or initiation, during which the child was blessed, marked with water on the forehead, and then named. Infant baptism linked with the naming of a child was also practised among the ancient inhabitants of northern Europe, namely the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and other Germanic tribes, long before Christianity. Water was poured on the head of a newborn child, while its father or the elder brother of its mother ceremoniously named the child. 

Similarly, ceremonies that seem to correspond to Christian baptism were carried out on children in ancient Rome on the eighth or ninth day after their birth, when they were named. Besides sprinkling water on a child’s head, the child was also daubed with spittle to avert evil influences. A similar custom prevailed in Scotland, where it was believed necessary that the parson use spittle to christen a child. Amongst many African tribes, the custom of spitting to ward off evil prevailed. The child to be named was spat on in the face three times to protect it in later life.

In the past it was considered unlucky to call a child by its name before baptism, even to let the name be known to anyone except the parents. It was believed that public knowledge of its name before baptism would expose the hapless infant to great risk. This superstition has its roots in the ancient past and is found universally amongst all cultures. (See Chapter I, What’s in a Name?)

Children are often named after living or deceased parents and relatives, all depending on the culture to which the person belongs. In the past it was considered unlucky to name one’s son or daughter after a child who had died in the same family, as the dead child was believed to return and call away the living child of the same name. Only when a father died, did the son take his name, lest it be forgotten. However, newborn children were often given the names of relatives who had passed on, not so much to honour the ancestor’s memory, as we would be inclined to rationalise, but because it was believed that the child would be ‘ensouled’ with the spirit of the dead ancestor. The Scottish highlanders called this traditional custom ‘raising the spirit’.

In Scandinavian countries, it was customary to name children after a deceased relative, as it was held that children would inherit the virtues of the ones whose names they bore. Similar to the Scottish custom of ensouling, Scandinavians named their children after deceased relatives to call up those who had died, attesting to the Old Norse belief in the transmigration of souls. Besides the custom of naming children after deceased relatives, alliteration and variation influenced name-giving in Germanic cultures. Either the same sound at the beginning of one name was repeated in another, or new names were formed to differ from those of others by changing one element in the name. For example, the Norwegian name Végeirr was varied to Vébiorn, Vésteinn, Vémundr, and Végestr. 

Amongst many societies, it is customary to give succeeding generations identical names, distinguished merely by adding ‘junior’ or ‘senior’, or following the example of aristocracy by numbering the names of their progeny as Charles I or Henry VIII. However, the Puritans of the seventeenth century named their children after admired moral qualities such as Faith, Hope, Mercy, Constance, and even Praise-God. 

In former times, an infant’s baptism was attended by many curious beliefs, some of which are prevalent. The Christian doctrine of original sin decreed that evil spirits lie in wait for the soul of an unbaptised child, not protected by the sanctity of the Church, and that they must be driven out during the baptising ceremony. Therefore, if a child cried at the ceremony, it was considered a lucky sign, as it meant that evil spirits had been driven out. A saying from northern England tells us that ‘A child’s cry at baptism is the voice of the Evil One being driven out by Holy Water’. Therefore, the tears and struggles of the infant were regarded as convincing proof that the devil himself had departed. An alternative theological explanation was that the infant’s howl signified the pangs of spiritual rebirth. By this token, the person holding the infant would often pinch or prick the poor child to summon up a good loud wail, audible to all pious, anxiously waiting relatives. 

On no account was the font water to be wiped from the infant’s face, but left to dry naturally. Another popular notion contended that to bathe the child’s eyes in font water assured it of not having to see ghosts in later life. It was also a common custom that male children always be baptised before female children. Of course, the specific day on which a baptism was to be held had to be carefully considered. Sundays were held to be the most favourable, although all other days, except Fridays were also deemed suitable. Those baptised on a Friday were thought to grow up as rogues and inevitably end up under the hangman’s hands. Naturally, a baptism was never to be held in the wake of a funeral, but believed to bring luck for the child, if it followed after a wedding. 


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App