I’d never been part of a formal ceremony before. I wasn’t baptised, bat mitzvah-ed, or confirmed. I skipped my graduation night. I’ve never been married and no one has ever asked me to play flower girl or bridesmaid. But when my first-born arrived I found myself wanting to have a formal ritual.
My desire was to have an event where friends, family, and the wider community could come along to greet my daughter, Winnie, and welcome her to the world. I wanted a formal recognition of her existence as a member of society. Lastly, I wanted to give Winnie a set of second parents: people who were invested in her upbringing and to whom she knew she could turn to for advice and support at times when she didn’t want to involve her parents.
The ceremony consisted of three parts:
- Winnie’s OddParents (secular godparents) and biological parents (myself and my partner) each made a promise to help guide her through life. After the promise was publicly made, the person poured some sand into a bottle that represented Winnie. As the different colours of sand layered we recognised that who Winnie will become relies on our combined input.
- Attendees were asked to write upon a ‘Wish for Winnie’ card and deposit it in an ornate box which would then belong to Winnie. The wishes could be a piece of advice, a poem, a picture, a hope, anything the writer thought would aid Winnie in life when she later grew old enough to read through them.
- The Grand Hello – attendees were invited to the front of the hall to greet Winnie and her parents. There were many kisses, hugs, handshakes, and smiles.
I can’t rightly say where this desire for formality and ritual sprang from so suddenly. All I know is that when I looked at Winnie I felt an overwhelming sensation that this was epic. Something needed to happen to mark the occasion.
Perhaps this was what our ancient ancestors felt when the very first formal rituals were conducted: a sense that a moment in history needed a marker.
We know now that emotional arousal helps the storage of memories. This is why we have better recall of significant events than the everyday. I’ll always remember when Winnie was born because it was the most unusual day of my life thus far. Now others will remember her arrival too because they will recall the welcoming ceremony.
The ceremony also included group singing and heartfelt talks. The Grand Hello, the sing-alongs, and the Wish for Winnie cards meant the ceremony was not just something that people sat back and watched. Each person played an integral part of making the day meaningful and fun. Each person was involved.
Together we created a series of sensations: warm fuzzies, elation, joy, interpersonal connections…and these sensations helped us form a lasting memory. For me, this memory was the initial motivation for wanting to hold a ceremony. Yet, when exploring the role of ritual I discovered that perhaps there were deeper, subconscious motivations at work here too.
We use ritual to help us through transitional phases in life or to face the unknown. This is why they primarily appear around life’s most significant changes: birth, coming of age, coupling, and death. Why almost every human culture past and present contains rites of passage (I say ‘almost’, but it could be every). We use it to bolster us for the challenges of life.
Becoming a new parent is certainly a life challenge. It is the biggest, unalterable change my life has ever seen. Becoming a mother in particular shakes the very foundations of one’s being. Taking care of a newborn means giving up your physical autonomy. Suddenly the sole purpose of your daily existence is to keep someone else alive, to cater to their every whim and need. Meanwhile they have no means of clear communication, no empathy for you, and are constantly demanding something, anything, if only you can figure it out. It’s exhausting: physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The idea that I may have used ritual to help me face the challenges of parenthood, to address the alteration of my role within society, and the existential questions that come with it all…that makes good sense to me. Consciously, I just wanted to throw a party but perhaps there was a deeper need for me to have the community recognise my transition and need for support. In hindsight, Winnie’s welcoming ceremony was as much a rite of passage for me as it was for her.
So I guess the question is: does ritual work? In this case it’s a yes. I feel a contentment and confidence around my role as a parent that I didn’t previously. It may sound silly, but I now feel like Winnie is more of an official person: a recognised member of society. The keepsakes from the ceremony are on display in our home as reminders of the day and representations of the support and love of the community. This helps.
I’m grateful to be a part of the Sunday Assembly at this time in my life because I’m unsure how I would have celebrated this milestone without them. Having a non-religious alternative for celebrating life’s big moments is definitely a must and I sure hope to see more Sunday Assembly ceremonies in the future.
Katie Melbourne has been an organiser of Sunday Assembly Melbourne since it first formed in April 2013. She is a queen of karaoke in the shower, a bon vivant, and now…a mother.