The Etiquette of Victorian Christenings

Mallory James

My guest today is Mallory James. Mallory has long been interested in the nineteenth century and set up her blog, Behind The Past, to indulge this passion. Her blog is made up of a series of how-to guides and lifestyle hints, aimed at any aspiring Regency and Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Here is her post on Victorian christenings:

Prior preparation is something of a watchword when it comes to event planning. If you make sure every little detail is perfect, then you should be able to carry off your event with ease. That is the theory, at least. The practice is often rather different. You can slice the crusts off little cucumber sandwiches with as much precision as you like, but there is still a high chance that you will be sheltering under a tree come lunchtime, bleakly looking on as the rain pours down on all sides. The same can be said for christenings. Your little bundle of joy might look positively angelic in their robes when the ceremony starts. They might also be red-faced and screaming by the end. And that is something which holds true both for us now and for our Victorian ancestors.

Thus, and with the image of some perhaps rather flustered and harassed-looking Victorian parents in mind, we shall embark upon our exploration of Victorian christening etiquette. Drawing upon advice given in the second half of the nineteenth century, this guest post will focus upon the etiquette of the events and preparations leading up to the christening, and the etiquette of the christening ceremony itself. After all, while the charming little stranger at the centre of everything cannot possibly have been expected to adhere to the requirements of the day, the same cannot be said for the assembled adults.

So, after the arrival of the child had been made known – perhaps through an announcement in the newspapers – it was expected that friends and acquaintances would send messages of enquiry to the family in question. They were supposed to continue making these solicitous enquiries two or three times a week for about one or two weeks. During this time, it was not expected that the mother would receive visitors. When she was ready, she would send out cards of thanks and only then would visitors be able to descend upon the family.

Title Page From “The Handbook of Etiquette,” Public Domain.

Of course, some close friends of the mother might have been allowed to visit in the intervening weeks. However, The Handbook of Etiquette from 1860 stressed that if those close friends were not permitted to visit, then they should not feel slighted. The lying-in room was deliberately kept as quiet as it possibly could be. Indeed, Beeton’s Young Englishwoman – written in the following decade – declared that no one could possibly expect to see the mother until she had sent out her cards of thanks. These were to be taken as an announcement that the mother was ready to return to Society.

Nevertheless, we must return to the descending visitors. When they did arrive, the practice of distributing cake and caudle may have been observed. Caudle was described in the Handbook of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington as a drink made from ‘a spiced and wined gruel of oat meal.’ It would have been drunk from a special, two-handled caudle cup.

However, drinking caudle and eating cake might perhaps be seen as preliminary celebrations. It is time to turn our attention to the christening. This first matter to consider is – naturally – the selection of godparents. According to Manners and Rules of Good Society, the godparents were usually chosen from among the close friends of the infant’s mother.  As a general rule, a boy would have had two godfathers and one godmother. Correspondingly, a girl would have had two godmothers and one godfather. However, it was said in Etiquette: What to Do and How to Do It in the 1880s that many parents exceeded this traditional number of godparents.

A date also had to be set for the christening. According to Beeton’s Young Englishwoman, the christening was normally fixed as soon as the mother was considered to be sufficiently recovered to be able go out. It was said that the child would usually be about a month old at that point. Similarly, Manners and Rules of Good Society felt that a christening was usually held within six weeks of the child’s birth. It was also advised here that invitations were commonly sent out to give between a week and ten days notice and that, in most cases, the christening would have been a family affair. Normally, only close relatives of the parents would have been invited.

Christening Gown From Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1857, Public Domain

Following on from this, those in attendance would obviously have had to dress appropriately. For the adults, this would have meant wearing morning dress. Of course, we have already mentioned that the baby at the centre of it all could not possibly have taken on the responsibility of following proper etiquette. However, this did not excuse their parents from the responsibility of acting on their behalf. If we return once more to the advice given in Etiquette: What to Do and How to Do It, it would have been quite usual for the child to have been dressed in a family heirloom that had been passed down through the preceding generations. This same manual also detailed a variety of ways in which the christening outfit might have been styled.

To begin, the outfit may have been made up of a robe, cap, hood and mantle. The robe might have been made from satin or silk with an over robe made from embroidered muslin. Alternatively, the robe could have been made from satin or silk with a lace over robe. The cloak could also have been made from satin or silk, with matching ribbons to fasten it, and with lace trimming. The hood would have been fashioned to match the cloak. Ideally, the cap would have been made from lace. It was also said in this manual that the cap would have been trimmed with ‘cockades or rosettes, on the left or right, according to whether it [the child] is a girl or boy.’

So far, the rather splendidly-dressed child seems to be doing quite well out of all of this. Indeed, they seem to be done very well indeed if we consider the presents that their godparents were expected to give to them. Gold or silver mugs, cups and spoons were suggested presents in Etiquette: What to Do and How to Do It. Here, bibles, prayer books, jewellery and money were also put forward as other suitable offerings.   

Regarding the etiquette of the service – i.e. who held the baby and when – some different guidance can be seen. For example, The Handbook of Etiquette said in the 1860s that, when at the font, the child was held by the nurse. At the appropriate juncture, the godfather then told the clergyman the child’s name.

In the following decade, Beeton’s Young Englishwoman said that it was the godmother who held the child by the font for the first part of the christening ceremony. When required, she would then have placed the child on the clergyman’s left arm. However, after this part of the ceremony, the clergyman would have handed the child to the nurse. Again, it was the role of the godfather to give the name of the child. Under this guidance, only those directly involved in this part of the service – the clergyman, the godparents, the child and the nurse – went to the font. Everyone else, including the child’s parents, would have stayed in their pews.

Christening Ensemble, 1886, Cotton and Silk, Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 1880s, Etiquette: What to Do and How to Do It directed that it was the role of the head godmother to pass the child to the clergyman at the appropriate moment. This distinction was determined by both rank and kinship. Where neither of the godmothers was a relation, the lady of higher rank would have held the child. However, if one of the godmothers was a relation, then she would have held the child regardless of the godmothers’ respective social ranks. Once the child had been christened, the clergyman would have given the child back to the godmother, who would in turn have given the child back to its nurse.

In conclusion, and while we should not forget that a christening was and is a religious ceremony, there is a general sense that it was part of a happy time for parents to show-off their new arrival and for relations, friends and acquaintances to admire him or her. Indeed, perhaps we could hope that by the time the ceremony had reached its conclusion, the Victorian parents we imagined at the beginning of this post looked rather more proud than fraught.

Bibliography:

  • Anon., All About Etiquette; Or, the Manners of Polite Society: For Ladies, Gentlemen and Families, (London: Ward, Lock &Co., 1875[?]).
  • Anon., Beeton’s Young Englishwoman: A Volume of Pure Literature, New Fashions and Pretty Needlework Designs, (London: Ward, Lock and Tyler, 1875).
  • Anon., Etiquette, Politeness, and Good Breeding, (London: Ward, Lock and Tyler, 1870[?]).
  • Anon., Etiquette, Social Ethics, and the Courtesies of Society, (London: Wm. S. Orr and Co., 1854).
  • Anon., Manners and Rules of Good Society; Or, Solecisms to be Avoided, [Leopold Classic Library].
  • Anon., The Hand-Book of Etiquette: Being A Complete Guide to the Usages of Polite Society, (London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1860).
  • Howard, Lady Constance, Etiquette: What to Do and How to Do It, (London: F. V. White & Co., 1885), [ULAN Press].
  • Keim, De B. Randolph, Handbook of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington, 3rd Ed., (Washington, 1889).

Mallory’s first book, Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century, is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek guide to the manners and customs of this era and is due to be published by Pen and Sword in November 2017. If you are interested in connecting with Mallory, you can find her on Twitter at @_behindthepast or click here to visit her website.

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