Religious rituals
Religious rituals

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church refer officially to baptism or infant baptism. Both churches prefer the baby to be baptised during a regular Sunday service, often at the same time as other families. If the baptism is during morning service or mass, it will usually be followed by a lunch.

It is still possible to have a private christening in a church of your choice, although it may take some tact and perseverance. If you have a special relationship with a priest or vicar from a different parish, who is for instance a family friend, then you will need to clear the arrangements with the local parish priest or vicar. Private christenings are often in the afternoon and followed by a tea, but this will be dictated by the local church’s timetable.

Church of England
During the baptism service, the parents and godparents gather together with the baby (traditionally wearing a white gown) and the vicar, usually around the church’s font, to make a series of religious declarations. They are required to declare, in unison, their belief in God, and that the child will be brought up following Jesus. The vicar marks the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, then pours some water on the child’s head, symbolising the washing away of all sin. If the ceremony is taking place during a normal service, the congregation may join in at this point, and a candle is lit symbolising Jesus as the light of the world. During the ceremony the mother usually holds the baby, but the godmother may hold the baby at some point. The register is signed after the ceremony, usually by the father.

Roman Catholic
Baptism is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Traditionally infants were baptised as soon as possible after they were born; today the ceremony often takes place a little later but the baby may well be younger than is usual within the Anglican Church. The child should wear a white garment and in addition to being baptised with water is anointed with oil (chrism).


Traditionally there were three godparents, two of the same sex and one of the opposite sex. Today there may be six, sometimes more. Godparents are usually a mixture of friends and relations.

In the Church of England, godparents must have been baptised themselves, preferably confirmed too; in the case of Catholics at least one godparent, usually of the same sex as the baby, must be a full member of the Church in good standing – in other words a practising Catholic.

Being a Godparent
The aim of a good godparent should be to have a direct relationship with the child, separate from the parents.

It is an honour and a responsibility to be asked to be a godparent. If asked, it is almost impossible to say no without giving offence, but if a person really has good reason to refuse they must do so, and the parents should not take umbrage.

Choosing Godparents
Parents may choose friends or relations or both, and a mixture may be a good plan. Friendships do not always last and parents must accept that some godparents will not have much of a relationship with the child.

Parents should therefore choose people they love and trust, and not base their choice on hopes for financial gain or because they want trophy godparents for social reasons. Many people are reciprocal godparents to each other’s children, which can work well. Others go down the generations within the extended family or close family friends, choosing the child of their own godparent for their baby, which can prove an enduring bond. Just occasionally someone will propose themselves as a godparent. It is polite to agree, but the parents may want to have this person in addition to others they have already chosen.

Godparents’ Presents
A godparent is expected to give a christening present, which is usually something that will last rather than, for instance, a toy. Silver was traditional; laying down some good wine may be an option, or giving a pearl necklace. Premium bonds or other savings accounts may be set up, or a life membership of an organisation, for example the National Trust, may be suitable. Godparents have been known to pay school fees, buy a roundthe- world ticket, host an 18th birthday party or even make a godchild their heir, if they have no other children. Generally a godparent will be expected to give a Christmas and a birthday present up to the age of 18 or 21 and then a wedding present.

Godchildren must always be made to write thank-you letters from as soon as it is feasible, and if they do not do so they should not be surprised if the presents stop. They may invite their godparents to their 18th or 21st.

Relations with godparents may not remain as close as godchildren get older, but nevertheless godchildren should continue to write thank-you letters, and let their godparents know when they get engaged and invite them to their wedding, unless they have completely lost touch. Invitations may even be extended to christenings of their own children.


Notification to godparents, friends and family may be by post, telephone call or email and will include mention of any party afterwards. Traditionally, formal invitations were not sent out for christenings or baptisms, but some parents do choose to send them. These are either pre-printed or bespoke cards; the style of the invitation should reflect the level of formality of the service and party.

Traditional Formal Invitations
David and Lucy

John and Charlotte Debrett invite you to celebrate the christening of Thomas Edward at St Botolph’s Church, Hanbury on Sunday 8th November and afterwards at the Old Hall

11.00am Service
12.30pm Lunch

Pre-printed cards are available with spaces left blank for the guests’ names, the baby’s name, and the date, location and time of the christening, to be handwritten. The pre-printed wording usually reflects the sex of the child, for example ‘…request the pleasure of your company at the christening of their son…’.

Guests should reply to invitations promptly. The level of formality of the reply should reflect the style and tone of the invitation. If a very formal invitation is received, it is advisable to reply in the third person, as for a wedding invitation.

Parties after the service may include a lunch (possibly a buffet), or tea in the case of an afternoon ceremony. The party is usually fairly informal and not all that long, as the baby’s routine needs to be considered. It is best to have any party fairly near the church, whether it is in a hotel or similar venue, or a private house.

Drinks are served, most usually champagne and wine, as well as tea or coffee and soft drinks. Traditionally the top layer of the wedding cake was saved and re-iced to use as a christening cake. A godparent may toast the baby, but long speeches are unusual.

Parents will expect some people to bring presents, so it is sensible to have somewhere to put these, but not necessary to open them there and then. Thank-you letters should be sent promptly.

Guests may bring small children of their own or the baby may have siblings and cousins, so it is a good idea to have some help and to have organised suitable food and possibly a play area for them. It would be very unusual not to invite children; however parents bringing children must look after them properly.

Guest Lists
Large parties for christenings are unusual. The essential guests are the godparents, grandparents, the parents’ siblings, and perhaps the godparents of the baby’s siblings and the closest family friends. Cousins will not always be included, nor will neighbours or friends, even very close friends. Godparents are usually accompanied by a spouse or partner.

Parents may need to work the date round the most important guests. If only the actual godparent can come and the spouse is away then the godparent should come alone. If a godparent is unable to come, then another close friend or family member may stand in for them – for practical reasons – during the service.

It is essential to invite the clergyman and spouse to any party or reception. Busy parish priests may not be able to come and parents must allow for this.

Photographs in church should always be non-invasive and cleared beforehand with the vicar or priest. Photographs at the party should be organised efficiently for the sake of the baby. Godparents may want to be photographed holding the baby but it is unwise to force this.

It is correct to dress smartly, with men in suits, or a country jacket and tie, and women in dresses and jackets but not necessarily hats (although it is not wrong to wear one). It is no longer necessary for women to cover their heads in Catholic churches though some may choose to do so. Men should remove hats. Children should be dressed smartly.

The baby may wear a traditional christening robe, which may be a family heirloom, but these may not always fit larger babies. White is traditional and a dress and shawl look best – there are specialist companies that make modern versions.

Naming Rituals
Naming Rituals

Naming Ceremonies

Naming ceremonies are a non-religious option for parents who wish to celebrate, in some official capacity, the arrival of their child with family and friends. They have no legal standing, but may be organised in association with a local authority, or through a private company. These ceremonies are often led by a trained ‘celebrant’ and, instead of godparents, individuals are asked to be ‘supporting adults’. A certificate is usually presented as a keepsake. It is usual for the parents to host a reception for guests after the ceremony with some food, drinks and a naming cake (similar to a christening cake).

Naming Parties or Naming Days
Many parents now choose to host a naming day or naming party themselves, as a non-religious alternative to a christening. The format of the day will vary from family to family, but a lunch for family and close friends is a popular option.

A few friends and/or relations are usually asked take on the role and responsibilities of godparents, and there may be a short speech followed by a toast to the new baby. It is usual for guests to take a present for the baby, as they would to a christening.

All the latest news, discussions, events and offers from Debrett’s and receive £10 off your first purchase