Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners

The Indispensable Handbook

John Morgan

Thomas Dunne Books

Babies, for such small things, enter the world to a great fanfare – not only their own, but the enthusiastic adulation of family and friends as well. They are also, in an age when procreation is increasingly regarded as positively miraculous, trumpeted to a quite unprecedented extent.
Announcement of a Birth
This is traditionally the duty of the father, who must ring any immediate relations who were not present at the birth. Close family should be the first to hear the glad tidings, followed by prospective godparents, friends and colleagues. It is then customary to place a birth announcement in the personal column of newspapers. It is also increasingly usual to leave an announcement on the telephone answering machines of close friends, adding whether or not you are receiving calls.
The choice of wording for a newspaper announcement varies according to personal style, although the proper form is short and elegant.
PROUDPARENTS – On 22 December, to John and Jane, a son.
The inclusion of the year is optional. Some couples like to add the name of the hospital, the infant’s name and the mother’s maiden name: this, although well intentioned, is not comme il faut. Other details such as ‘little brother for Andy, Pandy and Mandy’ or ‘long-awaited grandchild for Don and Doris’ are even more inappropriate and should never appear. As for the entry that once appeared in a west country local paper and which included ‘thanking all concerned’, nothing needs to be said.
The form for single mothers takes the same pattern:
PROUDPARENT – On 30 December, to Susan, a son.
Smart babies are often announced, at the discretion of the social editors and often free of charge, in the Court & Social pages. It has also recently become the custom, immediately on deciding a baby’s name, to send out American-style birth announcements (see Chapter 8). These can look very smart. The same cannot be said of a card showing a jolly picture of the new family, with written details on the back. After all, as one mother said: ‘I was half gaga at the time, looked absolutely at my worst and am now embarrassed about these images being in constant circulation.’
Registration of Birth
Babies have to be legally registered. In England and Wales this has to be done within forty-two days. In Scotland the period of grace is only twenty-one days. Apart from this slight difference the procedure is largely the same throughout Great Britain. Babies are registered with their local registrar of births. If the infant is born when away from home, it is possible to declare the child locally but register it through the post to the baby’s local area. The registering of babies by married couples is very straightforward. Either parent can do the registration, as only one signature is needed. Details of both parents are put on the certificate. Although most children automatically assume the father’s surname, an infant can be given the mother’s or any other of choice. The position with unmarried people is slightly more complicated. The mother always has to be present. In order for the father’s details to be included in the birth entry, he should attend the register office with the mother and sign the register with her, or he can fill in a paternity declaration on a special form from the registrar’s office. This needs to be witnessed by a solicitor or Commissioner for Oaths and is brought along by the woman when she attends the registration. Either the mother’s or father’s name can be used. In some circumstances when a father denies paternity, the mother can take him to court, where it is possible to order DNA tests to prove fatherhood and thus force him to recognise the child as his. On the other hand, if the mother does not want the father’s name on the birth certificate a line is drawn through the space for paternal details. Alternatively a mother can also add the man’s details later, should circumstances change, such as marriage, and therefore re-register the baby.
Hospital Visits
If you are not an immediate family member it is thoughtful, no matter how happy you are for the new mother, to delay your visit for a day or so, to give time for the immediate family to spend time with their newborn and for the mother to regain her strength. This is to ensure that she, who will undoubtedly be feeling drained by the experience of childbirth, is not overtaxed with visitors. Particularly if she has had a difficult birth, being besieged with callers can make her feel totally exhausted and confused. A mother of great experience recommends that visits from well-wishers should be no longer than twenty minutes.
As far as the newborn is concerned, it is necessary only for immediate family to bring presents, although friends may give something if they wish. This can range from a practical item for the nursery to something much more substantial and permanent, such as the two million pound trust fund that was recently settled on a very lucky three-day-old baby. Clothes, unless with prior consultation, are not recommended, as most mothers have very strong ideas about how their children are to look.
In all the excitement surrounding the baby, it is important to remember the star performer – the mother. An acquaintance says: ‘After a birth, women long to feel feminine again and thus welcome gifts such as delicious soaps, a beautiful nightdress and, of course, flowers.’ If sending a present – particularly flowers – rather than taking it in person, it is sensible to check how long the mother will be staying in hospital. Nowadays, this can be a very short time indeed. Some experts also recommend that the new baby’s siblings are also given a small present, as their noses are often out of joint after the birth of the new arrival.
Letters of Congratulation
Friends who cannot visit should write a short letter of congratulation to the happy parents. This is always addressed to the mother and could read:
Dear Susan,
I was so thrilled to hear of the arrival of your long-awaited daughter. She will make a delightful addition to the family and help keep those boisterous boys in order.
With much love,
Freddie Well-Wisher
If time is short, it is just acceptable to send a postcard bearing a suitable image.
Single Mothers
Many women choose to have babies without becoming attached to a man in the conventional sense. Others have accidents. In both cases it behoves family and friends to be extra supportive, as the mother will have to cope with her new family without the traditional help of a spouse.
If there are complications it is rude to ask too many questions. If a child is born with defects, unless these abnormalities are absolutely horrendous, family and friends must behave in a positive way. If a baby is stillborn or dies shortly after birth, this awful event must be treated as a family death, with letters of condolence sent to the parents.
Breast-Feeding in Public
It is bad manners to expel any liquid from any orifice in public, and breast-feeding is no different. Nevertheless, this habit remains a very sensitive area. During the sixties and seventies, many western women asserted their right to breast-feed in public. The fact that this practice has not become widespread is largely due to the fact that many onlookers (women as well as men of different generations) find the sight embarrassing, even revolting. With this in mind, well-mannered mothers should breast-feed in private. Thoughtful hosts offer lactating visitors a quiet room where they can feed away from the general throng.
Despite the secularisation of society, a surprising number of babies are baptised. Research suggests that one in four babies is christened into the Church of England alone. However, there can be problems. Although most clergy are happy to baptise babies, many harbour reservations about christening babies of families who do not attend church, claiming that nonpractising Christians are unlikely to bring their children up in a truly Christian manner. Others take the more relaxed view that by baptising an infant, the Church has acquired a new recruit.
Many clergymen are reluctant to give private baptisms, preferring to uphold the Church of England’s current official line that baptism is a rebirth and a welcoming to the larger Christian communion, and thus infants should be christened during normal Sunday service in the presence of the parish’s congregation. Others do semi-private group baptisms of several babies. Policy varies from parish to parish. However, most parents still, quite understandably, want the ‘specialness’ of a private christening with friends and family rather than a public affair, and there are plenty of vicars who will oblige with a private rite. As in many aspects of contemporary religion, it is down to the discretion of your local incumbent.
Baptism in the Church of England
Within the Church of England, christenings can happen at any age, although the most frequent time is at around three or four months. Clergymen hate leaving it too late, not just for the sake of the infant’s soul, but because the older babies are, the heavier, more wriggly and increasingly difficult they become to manoeuvre. It is usual for the ceremony to take place at the local parish church. However, if parents wish for the service to take place at another church, they must first get the permission of both ministers.
In the case of church-going families, the arrangement of a christening is only a formality. However, should the parents never attend church, most clergy will want some assurance that the infant, once baptised, will be brought up in the tenets of the Christian faith. The majority of parishes now insist on some sort of preparation prior to the ceremony: this can range from a single conversation about the meaning of the service to a series of classes or training sessions.
Normally, the local parish priest performs the service. However, some couples wish to have the ceremony conducted by a family member or friend who is in Holy Orders. In these cases it is important to remember that men of the cloth can be as territorial as those of the laity, and thus the local priest’s permission will have to be tactfully sought. Also, should a child be christened outside its own diocese, then it is courteous to inform the bishop by letter that this is happening.
There are two main liturgies to choose from. The first is the traditional service from the Book of Common Prayer, which is very beautiful, places a strong emphasis on the renunciation of evil and is preferred by many to the revised texts in the Alternative Service Book. The latter is written in more modern English and is designed to present a more contemporary view of Christianity.
Whichever service is chosen, the central act of the ceremony remains largely constant. Parents and godparents gather around the font with the baby and are asked by the minister to affirm their belief in Christ and the renunciation of all evil. Holding the child, the priest then pours or sprinkles holy water on to the infant’s forehead and using the child’s new Christian names declares: ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ The priest then makes the sign of the cross on the young forehead. Sometimes a lighted candle is presented to the family and specially blessed oils are used to anoint the baby. It is usual for the father to go to the vestry to register the christening. There is always a fee payable for a certificate of baptism, and should the baptism have been a private affair, then a small donation to church funds is welcomed. There is one family who, as their gesture of appreciation, organised for flowers to be delivered to the church for three Sundays after the christening of their newborn. This lovely gesture was much appreciated.
The dress for the christening ought to be special. Women should wear hats and men dark suits. The infant is resplendent in a white gown (this is often part of a family’s history) that signifies purity. Sometimes a little white bonnet is also worn. Should you wish to baptise your child in an ancestral gown, it is sensible to remember that in the past babies were smaller than today. Thus your bouncing baby might be too big for the antique: certainly an early christening is advised.
Announcements in the Press
Written announcements of christenings in the Court & Social pages of national newspapers are increasingly rare, although traditionally minded families like to keep up the custom. Typical wording could read:
The infant daughter of The Earl and Countess of Proudparentland was christened Augusta Boadicea by the Reverend Timothy Tremble at St Margaret’s, Westminster, on Thursday 21 December. The god-parents are The Hon. Tiggy Tintangel, Mrs Peter Pork-Sausage and The Lord Tickle.
Note, in the case of a male infant, the names of the godfathers precede those of godmothers.
Catholic Baptism
This tends to be a rather more elaborate and lengthy affair than the Anglican rite, although in recent years it has been simplified by innovations from the Vatican. Although practices vary from parish to parish, the Roman Catholic Church, like the Church of England, now officially discourages the practice of private baptism, although in most cases the choice of baptism during mass or outside it is available (and there are still priests who will perform a private service). One godparent (or sponsor) has to be a Roman Catholic of good standing, and only his or her name is entered in the register. Sometimes there is a hymn at the beginning of the service. The parents and godparents trace the sign of the cross on the infant’s forehead. Then follows a reading from Scripture, and a short homily and prayers. After this the infant is anointed with catechumenal oil by the priest. Parents and god-parents renounce Satan and profess their faith in God. The actual baptism is then performed. After this the child is anointed with chrism oils and wrapped in a pure white robe, and its father or godfather holds a candle lit from the Paschal candle held by the priest. This elaborate ritual concludes with the saying of the Lord’s Prayer, a blessing and the signing of the register. If the service has included an organist, there might be a fee payable to him. The priest does not charge for his services, but an offering is always appreciated. It is most important to keep the baptismal certificate, as it will be needed for future rites of religious passage, such as weddings, and for applications to Roman Catholic schools.
Jewish Procedures
Traditionally, male infants are subjected to an ancient rite called Brit Milah, at which they are circumcised at an official ceremony presided over by a mohel. This usually takes place seven days after the birth and is held at home and not at the synagogue. The rite is attended by the parents, grandparents and friends. Sandeks, the Jewish equivalent of godparents, will also be present. These may be any Jewish male, and to be asked to fulfil this role is a particular honour in the faith. The godfather holds the infant during the procedure and the father recites a special prayer. The mohel is the one who actually wields the knife, as well as reciting prayers and a blessing over a goblet of wine. The baby is then given its Hebrew name which signifies its initiation into the faith. It is considered bad luck to make any reference to the baby’s name until after the circumcision. Female infants are spared this religious initiation and are expected only to attend the synagogue on the first Sabbath after the birth, when the father is called up or reads the Torah and the baby is given its Hebrew name. Some Reform and Liberal Jews have stripped the ritual circumcision of some of its ceremony. They may, instead, choose to bless the boy at the synagogue, as is customary with girls.
Men attending a Brit Milah are expected to wear a skullcap (yarmulke or kippah). Women at very Orthodox rites wear hats. It is usual to take a small present for the baby or some flowers or chocolates. Afterwards there is normally a small drinks party.
In the case of a first-born male child (and where there is no history of pregnancy) there is also a rarely performed rite known as Pidyan ha Ben. This charming little ceremony also takes place at home, and is performed by a cohen (priest). The father hands over silver to the cohen, who prays for the boy’s redemption. There is normally a party afterwards. Pidyan ha Ben normally takes place on Sunday evening and is a relatively smart affair. Again men need to wear skullcaps.
Humanist Naming and Welcoming Ceremonies
Humanists do not believe in God, but in a moral code inherent in human nature. For humanists there is neither an afterlife nor any divine revelation, only an interest in this life and the welfare of others. However, for all their differences with organised religion, the humanists do perform rather touching, tailor-made secular ceremonies, which they are happy to do for people without religious beliefs but who wish to mark life’s great milestones with some sort of special rite. The naming and welcoming ceremony for children is held shortly after the infant’s birth and is attended by family and friends. There is no established liturgy. Like all humanist ceremonies the rite is specially composed for the occasion. There would normally be a short address welcoming the child into the family circle and society, and espousing humanist ideals. At its simplest the service can be performed by the parents alone, although it is normal to ask a humanist celebrant to conduct the proceedings, for whom there is normally a small fee which should be negotiated beforehand. Humanists do not believe in godparents, as there is no undertaking to supervise the infant’s upbringing in a particular faith. However, some couples appoint ‘supporting adults’ or ‘mentors’, who are meant to take a special interest in the child’s development. There are no conventions of dress at these ceremonies.
Being a godparent has become very fashionable and today represents for many childless people – gays, women who have not had children and those who choose not to – a kind of proxy parenting. Prospective godparents are invited to stand by the parents and should themselves have been baptised and confirmed. Traditionally, in the Church of England, a boy infant has two godfathers and one godmother; girls two godmothers and one godfather. In the Catholic Church there is one godmother and one godfather for each child, regardless of sex. In reality, however, in an age of multiple godparenting, whole regiments of adults are dragooned into godparenting one infant. This enthusiasm is all very well, but it often obscures the serious commitment being a godparent brings. Godparents are intended by the Church to guide a child’s piety (literally to keep it godly) and to raise the young one in the Christian faith until he or she is old enough to make the promises for him- or herself at the service of confirmation. Outside of this spiritual requirement, being a godparent has also acquired the secular responsibility of enhancing the child’s general well-being and development and, most importantly, providing a safety net should disaster strike the child’s natural parents. In today’s world, with the fragility of the modern marriage, the role of godparent has never been more important. ‘You have to be ready to be an ex officio parent, a psychotherapist and the one who will pick up the pieces at the time of trouble,’ explains one highly enthusiastic godparent, who boasts nearly a score of godchildren. Thus, prospective godparents must weigh up their commitment honestly and harbour no embarrassment in declining politely the honour of the role, if they feel they might be unable to sustain it.
By the same token parents must resist the temptation to appoint ‘trophy godparents’ who look impressive in the photographs and sound grand in the newspapers but will probably prove singularly lacking when the chips are down. Parents should also ignore the recent nonsensical idea that the father’s best man should automatically be a godfather of the first child. The sole criterion for the selection of a godparent is their suitability for the role. After all, the ability to organise the stripper at the stag party is not the best credential for guiding a child through the Catechism. Parents should also be careful about appointing godparents who are too young. In recent years there has been a trend to choose at least one godparent who, rather than being the same generation as the parents, is nearer the infant in age. The rationale behind this is that godchild and godparent will have more in common. In reality, adolescent godparents often lose interest in their charges.
The godparent is expected to attend the christening, although, should he or she be unable to attend, they can nominate a stand-in. However, in the light of the gravity of the role, this is not really a good start. In the Church of England it is usual for a godparent, usually female, to hold the child at the font until the priest is ready to begin the service. In the Catholic Church, the mother holds the baby throughout.
Christening Presents
Many people claim to be confused about christening presents. Either they don’t give them at all, or they give transient items such as clothes or boxed sets of Beatrix Potter, which are much better suited to early birthdays. The perfect christening present is something of a permanent nature, such as a small silver hairbrush, nursery eating implements, a christening mug, a rattle, or a prayer book inscribed with the infant’s name and the date of the christening. Jewellery is also very popular for girls, with coral and pearl necklaces being the most traditional. Alternatively it can be an even more long-term proposition, such as a lifetime’s membership of a learned institution, a savings account or a cellar of wine or ‘pipe’ of port put down for drinking when the child comes of age. It is particularly important that godparental presents should be especially lasting. A certain international financier presented his godchild with a pair of specially crafted shoe trees from London’s best-known bespoke shoe-maker, with the note: ‘These are towards your first pair of shoes when you come of age.’
Christening Parties
It is usual to give a small informal party at home after the ceremony. Private baptisms normally take place in the afternoon, so it is usual to follow them with a tea party. Public baptisms would usually happen on Sunday mornings and thus drinks or a family lunch would be ideal. It is necessary to ask only family, godparents, the priest who officiated (and wife if applicable) and perhaps a few close friends. Whatever food is served, it must include a white-iced (purity again) christening cake, which traditionally, in the case of a first child, is the top layer of the parental wedding cake; alternatively it can be ordered specially for the event. As existing children can become very jealous of newly arrived siblings, it is tactful to provide a small cake for them, so that they do not feel left out. I still remember at the age of four, at my younger brother’s christening tea, being presented with my own cake (a jolly iced affair decorated with a blue train) and realising my mother still loved me.
Confirmation in the Church of England
This is usually done between the ages of twelve and fourteen and signifies that the child reaffirms the Christian beliefs made on its behalf at the christening. It is usual for the child to go to confirmation classes with a priest or school chaplain prior to the service. The ceremony is conducted by the local bishop, and it is common for several adolescents to be confirmed in one ceremony. It is usual for the confirmed to be accompanied by their parents and godparents. Dress is smart all round. The service also means that, as fully fledged members of the Church, they are ready to take their first communion, which can happen at the confirmation service or soon after.