Christening is a rite with a long history within many Christian denominations. It is an infant baptism, performed by exposing a child to holy water. Many Christians believe that a christening is the Christian version of circumcision—mirroring the infant circumcision of Christ to represent his covenant between humankind and God. Whilst there are no infant baptisms in the Bible, the adult baptisms performed by St John and the circumcision of Christ are seen to be the presidents for this ceremony taking hold.
A huge majority of Christian denominations have some form of baptism ceremony, with the christening being one of the most popular. Here is a guide to some of the traditions that define modern infant baptism. The practice has a long and complex history, and we won’t be getting too far into theological discourse in this short article!
Pouring, Dunking, and Sprinkling
The exposure of the infant to holy water is the defining tradition that permeates all christening rites. Most denominations practice the pouring or sprinkling of holy water by a priest, usually accompanied by an oral rite. Some denominations contend that this is not faithful to the ideals practiced by St John, and prefer to immerse the child fully in a font of holy water in a replication of how Christ was baptized in the River Jordan by St John.
Orthodox Christians are especially ardent believers in immersion baptism. Archbishop Nikiphor’s influential treatise on baptism, published in 1754, stated that all baptisms were mandated to be immersive. He pointed out the linguistic similarities between baptism and immersion in ancient Aramaic, the immersion of Christ in the River Jordan, and the symbolic importance of being completely submerged in order to fully initiate a person.
The Baptism Gown
Baptism gowns first gained popularity in the Victorian period, and have remained part of many Christian family traditions to this day. They usually take the form of a baby-sized white robe, dress, or romper. The dress is symbolically significant—representing the purity of the infant. These gowns are often kept as mementos by parents or godparents.
Godchild, godfather, and godmother gifts are all traditionally given during baptism ceremonies. Gifts given by godparents are traditionally made of silver, although this custom has waned in recent years, and may have only ever been a tradition for the relatively well off in times gone by.
One point that you might have realized whilst reading this article is that there is no one way in which Christians baptize their children. There is, in fact, huge variety. This variety can be attributed to dogmatic differences, cultural mores, and aesthetic traditions. Different readings of the bible—including the circumcision of Christ and his later baptism—often influence the way in which a denomination’s infant baptism traditions develop.
Some denominations, such as the Baptists, believe that only consenting adults can be baptized—as they are able to consciously accept the Lord. Traditions can change, too—some Orthodox churches are toning down their traditional christenings in order to avoid distressing babies with multiple immersions in water.
Hopefully this short guide has provided a useful insight into the traditions associated with baptism in Christianity.