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Why we should cherish traditions like Christenings and First Communions

By Mary Kenny

Published 30/05/2016

Dressing up: the outfit is a part of the day that should not be underestimated
Dressing up: the outfit is a part of the day that should not be underestimated

Yes, just like Napoleon, I did remember my First Holy Communion during the month of May. The Emperor, though not a believer in his later life (although he admired Islam as a warrior religion) still venerated the day of his First Holy Communion. Not everyone venerates the occasion. It sometimes shocks Protestants the extent to which Catholics can bring a carnival scene to religious ceremonial. And more than one son or daughter has remonstrated with a parent for being tipsy (or even totally inebriated) in the party that followed.

In later life you recall atmospheres as well as events, and I remember that there wasn't a serene atmosphere around my First Communion. Firstly, there was an argument about rig-outs. I yearned for a long dress, like princesses have in fairy tales, but this was ruled out on budgetary grounds. A kindly aunt was funding the First Communion frock, and she argued me around to a short dress in the Communion department.

I wasn't satisfied with this, but seven is the age of reason and I must have recognised the reality principle, because I accepted it, though I went on to bargain for a more elaborate confection as a headdress. The ceremony itself had an impressive level of drama and occasion, but a discontented atmosphere hung over the outing afterwards, which might have been down to the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire, with its wonderful view of the harbour. But my mother was distinctly down in the dumps. I think she was worried about money, about my elder brother's drinking, and, very probably, about whether, as a widow in her 50s she could manage as wild a child as I was.

Ah, Mother! All things pass. Life resolves itself one way or another.

I may not recall my First Communion as a particularly holy day, but it does stand out as a significant day. And that is what it is: it's a rite of passage (as well as, for Catholics, a sacrament of the Eucharist) marking a transition phase in childhood. For believers, it must, of course, be a special day and a child should be made to feel special on this day. If the child wants a designer frock from Dior and the parents can afford it, why not? I've seen a little Traveller girl in a diamond tiara get into her stretch limousine at a First Communion. Whatever befalls that lass for the rest of her life, she'll always remember the diamond tiara and the cream-white limousine awaiting her at the gates of the church.

Increasingly, I sense, secular parents can feel miffed that their child is "excluded" from all this First Communion procedure. Non-church-going parents in rural areas, especially - where the Communion is, literally, a community rite - are often anxious about this feeling of exclusion. There are two possible responses. One is harsh: get used to it, kid. Life is full of exclusions, of prizes you will never win, of invitations you will never receive, of opportunities that will never come your way, even of people who will never like you.

The second is more upbeat: invent your own rite of passage for seven-year-olds. This has already been done with civil weddings and humanist funerals. Those who are not religious can make a party of a civil wedding, and an increasing number of couples do so.

Those who eschew church ceremonies even in life's departure lounge may now arrange a humanist funeral. I don't find them satisfying - I want the catharsis of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" - but even a humanist funeral is better than no funeral at all: a colleague of mine left instructions that there was to be no ceremony after her death, and those who knew her felt they had not properly said farewell.

Human beings are a ceremonial tribe. We need rites and rituals. That's what Stonehenge, Newgrange and every megalithic monument is about: as homo sapiens emerged from the mists of evolution, he (and even more, she) embarked on marking life events through rites of passage. In many traditions, seven has been seen as a significant age: for the Japanese, for the Ottomans, who took the little boys out of the harems at seven and handed them over to male tutors. For others, 12 or 13 is the hub point of transition, and so we have Christian Confirmation around puberty, and in Judaism, the Barmitzvah. Even atheist Jews celebrate Barmitzvah, and all find in it a touching opportunity to mark a turning point in a young person's life. Such ceremonial brings reflection and endows memory, retrospectively, with meaning.

In the modern world, we often lack rites of passage. If parents don't want to baptise their children into any Christian denomination - and plenty don't, any more - then I jolly well think they should invent a "naming ceremony" to replace it. It's an awful cheat when you send someone a present for their new baby, and you never get to wet the baby's head because the parents scorn a Christening service. Then replace it with something else.

The Oxford philosopher Mary Warnock, a secularist and campaigner for euthanasia choice, once told me: "It's all very well rejecting the traditions of the past. But what are you going to put in their place? That's always been the problem for revolutionaries." Quite so.

Still, the First Holy Communion has proved resilient, as a living tradition. Long may it endure, to mark a day in childhood that will stand out all your life.

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