“You have inherited a thousand generations of wisdom, skill, poetry, song, all the sunrises and sunsets of knowledge past. You are the sum of all the people who went before you.” —A Recipe for Dreaming, www.essentialbaby.com
1. A Long and Varied History of Naming
Humanity’s entry into the 21st century has been—and will continue to be—one very rough ride. It’s as if all our past sins have come back to haunt us—global climate change, collapsing economies, species extinction, the poisoning of our air, water, land and food systems with chemicals and microwave radiation… It’s almost as if we should be first apologizing to children being brought into the world, because we’ve certainly set their generation a mighty challenge. This century could be the one to determine whether the human race continues much beyond it. So for their own sake, let’s hope that every child born is a so-called ‘indigo child’ of exceptional talents and abilities. They’re going to need them.
The best we can hope to do is give them every advantage possible, though for those growing up in poverty this will be difficult. In this socially fractured age, when the digital revolution has sped up our lives to breakneck speed, it can be hard for parents to know how to integrate their children into community. There are the inevitable streams that will eventually feed their little ones into the wider social world—school, relatives, etc. But especially in large urban communities, it can still be the case that you don’t even know your neighbours.
Although the churches have much to answer for throughout history, in the past they did at least provide the social focal point for families. With the decline of Christianity in the West, more and more people are seeking alternate paths of spirituality, although there has been a resurgence of Christian fundamentalism. (Not unusual in a period of societal decline as conditions become more unstable and people retreat to the security of dogma.) This decline opens up both new possibilities and new challenges. For some it may simply be a case of exploring long dormant family traditions that had been suppressed by mainstream religion. For others it’s a whole new territory, an opportunity to combine aspects of ritual meaningful to the individual. This is what is so tragic about the loss of tribal cultures around the world: they are repositories of ancient ritual, which is to say, repositories of meaning.
One example of a ritual that has been resurrected is the tradition of the Naming Day. This ceremony can occur as little as a few days after the birth of a child or up to a year afterward. This is not quite the same as the Christian Orthodox or Catholic tradition found in many European countries of the ‘name day,’ which arose from the tradition of saints’ feast days extending back to the Middle Ages. Particularly in southern Europe and South America today, name days—known as Onomastico in Italy—are observed as scrupulously as birthdays. (Source: Wikipedia: name days.) Name day calendars also have a well-established tradition, with different calendars for different countries. Each day in the calendar has a list of names commonly given children in that country, many of which were once derived the names of patron saints. In some countries the name day is celebrated more festively than birthdays, and gifts are expected.
Naming Day ceremonies also have a deep history, particularly in Hinduism, Judaism, throughout Africa and many North American First Nations. According to Medicine Wheel teacher Duncan Grady, in the Siksika Blackfeet tradition naming ceremonies often occur some time after a child’s birth, although they are given a Christian name at birth. The child’s native or tribal name is given after the community has been with the child during the first 6-7 years of its life. “The teaching is that during this time the child has a foot ‘in both worlds,’” says Grady. “The child’s innate abilities are often in view during this time. So, the experience of the child often contributes to the name that she or he will receive.”
The Nigerian Igbo tribe holds a naming ceremony for the child on either the fourth or the eighth day after birth, depending on mother and baby’s health. “Paternal grandparents officiate Igbo ceremonies,” explains afrikannames.com. “The ceremony begins with ancestor recognition and divination, followed by the name giving and planting of a live plant to represent life and survival. Next, a participant pours a wine libation to share the child’s name with the ancestors. After the usual breaking of kola nuts and prayers, the ceremony, which traditionally lasts an entire day, ends with a family procession.” The use of plants, wine and nuts helps the family reinforce the child’s deep connection with the land of their ancestors.
The loss of traditional ceremonies like the Naming Day or later rites of passage into adulthood have left many young people feeling adrift in modern culture. In the pre-industrial age, families seldom strayed far from the village of their birth, so extended family members were all close enough to welcome the child into the community and help care for it. Age-old traditions were easily maintained, helping children feel part of a wider circle. This continuity was shattered by the dawning of the technological age in the 19th century. The advent of machines ushered in the classic paradox: it freed us from backbreaking labour and gave us unprecedented mobility and at the same time stretched the bonds of community ever thinner.
Consequently, in the West, the lack of a formal ‘initiation’ into manhood or womanhood may be just one of many contributing factors to the formation of street gangs. Gangs or clubs typically serve the role of both initiating individuals into a select circle and acknowledging competence—vital aspects of socialization. Yet without the guidance of elders, street level initiations can go horribly wrong. In our wholesale adoption of the youth culture in North America, we have exiled to the margins one of our most valuable spiritual resources—the acquired experience, knowledge and wisdom of the aged. Instead we belittle them in popular culture as doddering and useless and relegate them safely away from us in retirement homes. It’s a modern tragedy.
Many Christian churches now offer Naming Day ceremonies as an alternative to baptism for parents uncomfortable with church rites. England’s North Yorkshire County Council, for example, offers such a service: “Every naming ceremony is personal to you and your child. The ceremony includes readings and promises to your child chosen by you from our ceremony booklet. Supporting adults and grandparents can be included in the ceremony and make their own promises, chosen by you, to the support in the upbringing of your child. You may also wish to give a special gift to your child during the ceremony.” (http://www.northyorks.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=2857)
“What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning,” T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets: Little Gidding. With the astuteness of the poet, Eliot hints at the cyclical nature of life, that contained within our beginning are the seeds of our end, and vice versa. Just as we honour a person’s leaving this life, it’s appropriate that we honour their entering it. It’s a way not only of welcoming new life into the community but of honouring generations of ancestral memory and experience, keeping the great circle intact. “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.” (Eliot, Four Quartets: Burnt Norton)
Part 2 to follow: Personal Experience with the Naming Day