A History of Baby Showers
“Baby shower” as a term is relatively new, but the celebrations and rituals associated with pregnancy and childbirth are both ancient and enduring. Like other rites of passage associated with significant transitional events such as coming of age, marriage, and death, baby showers function as a type of initiation into, and a construction of, a new state of being--in this case, “motherhood.”
As women throughout history confront the dichotomies (e.g., life/death, sacred/profane, and biological/social birth) that seem to come into tension particularly during pregnancy and childbirth, they have held rituals and ceremonies that allow them to explore forms of “possible selves,” an essential element in rites of passages (van Gennep 1960). Indeed, rituals surrounding pregnancy and birth provide an opportunity to try out both the new tools a mother will use to care for her newborn as well as to try out her role as mother. In this sense, baby showers in their different forms in different eras contribute to the eventual reintegration of a new identity in the community for both the mother and the child.
While the ancient Egyptians did not hold baby showers as we know them today, they did observe rituals associated with birth and pregnancy. However, the details surrounding the rituals of childbirth and pregnancy are difficult to study in detail because they were essentially female-centered events. In addition, as in many cultures, both ancient and modern, Egyptian celebrations associated with childbirth took place after the birth. Soon after the infant’s arrival, the mother and child in the Old Kingdom were secluded so that the pollution of birth could be contained and eliminated, often for 14 days. There is also evidence that certain domestic rituals took place after 40 days (Johnston 2004).
Though the nature of these rituals is unclear, they most likely involved visiting temples or local shrines and included the ritualized disposal of the after-birth, such as the umbilical cord and the placenta. Archaeological evidence from the site of the New Kingdom village of Deir el-Medina mentions “the festival of so-and-so’s” daughter, which may refer to a gathering or celebration after the birth during which the baby was named to mark its identity and suggest rights and privileges (Johnston 2004). These rituals of inclusion underscored broader identities and membership in the larger community.
Like the Egyptians, ancient Greeks celebrated pregnancy after the birth of the child. When the child was born, both the mothers and attendants shouted oloyge (a strident noise) to signal the labor was over and peace had arrived. Immediately after the umbilical cord was cut, the baby and mother were bathed, though they would remain impure for 10 days and their helpers for five days (Gelis 1991).
On the fifth or seventh day after birth, the child would be welcomed by a ceremony called Amphidromia (Running Round) in which the father would walk around the hearth several times, symbolizing the infant’s integration into the household. In a ritual called Dekate (Tenth Day) the mother would return to her place in society marked by a meal attended by her close relatives and friends. (In modern Iran, family members still visit the mother on the tenth day after birth.) Mothers would dedicate gifts to the main birth-goddess Eileithyia (whose sanctuary was found at the edge of the city), such as girdles, dresses, and other objects associated with birth (Johnston 2004). For many women, giving birth was the only way for them to gain recognition in a male world, and childless marriages ran a greater risk for divorce.
Middle Ages and Baptism Ceremony
During the Middle Ages, childbirth was associated with not only great physical danger but spiritual danger as well. In fact, during labor, a woman would be visited by a priest so she could confess her sins in the likelihood she would die during childbirth. If the woman did die during childbirth, the midwife was authorized to cut her open and extract the baby so she could baptize it because, according to Augustine of Hippo, unbaptized infants would go straight to hell (Gelis 1991). In addition, the pains associated with pregnancy and childbirth were largely viewed as justifiable due to Pope Innocent III's thesis that children were conceived in sin and that women were rightfully being punished for Eve’s sin.
If there is anything comparable to a baby shower in the Middle Ages, it would most likely be the baby’s baptism ceremony, which usually occurred the day it was born. The mother was confined for 40 days after the birth and, therefore, was not allowed to the baptism unless the baptism was delayed. The godparents, who played a particularly important role of spiritual tutor, would give gifts to the child, most notably a pair of silver spoons (Johnston 2004). There was some temptation to appoint many godparents and receive many gifts, so the Church stepped in and limited the number of godparents a child could have.
Childbirth was an almost mystical event during the Renaissance, and mothers-to-be would often be surrounded with references to the Annunciation to encourage and celebrate her. Unpublished inventories, diaries, and letters indicate that pregnancy and birth were celebrated with a wide range of birth objects such as wooden trays, bowls, and majolica wares, painting, sculptures, clothing, linens, and food. Painted childbirth trays, in particular, were popular items and were inscribed with wishes for good health and successful childbirth (Musacchio 1999). They were used to both carry food and gifts to the new mother and serve as decoration to be hung on the wall. Such childbirth objects emphasized the family and procreation and encouraged Renaissance women to fulfill a maternal role.
The predecessor to modern-day baby showers began to take shape during the Victorian era. A Victorian woman would keep her pregnancy a secret as long as possible and would not appear in public due to cultural definitions of proper behavior. Even the words “pregnant” or “pregnancy” were nearly taboo. After she gave birth, however, often other women would hold tea parties for the new mother--but only afterthe baby was born. In a move that may hint at modern baby shower games, women would attempt to predict pregnancy with childish games (Gelis 1991). For example, if two teaspoons were accidentally placed together on a saucer, it would be speculated that a woman might be expecting. In the early 1900s, the post-birth tea parties turned into showers. Gifts were typically handmade, except, as in the Middle Ages, the grandmother would give silver. A woman who had a second baby might be thrown a “sprinkling."
The modern baby shower started after WWII during the baby boom era and evolved with the consumer ideology of 1950s and 1960s. In other words, baby showers in the mid-twentieth century not only served an economic function by providing the mother-to-be and her home with material goods that lessened the financial burden of infant care, but purchased “things” also emerged as the principle whereby women make themselves into mothers. The commodities associated with pregnancy and birth served to construct the identity of the fetus as a social being (and often become treasured objects of many women who lose their baby). Rituals of the modern baby shower include “showering” the mother-to-be with presents, making shopping trips organized around the baby-to-be, establishing a playful atmosphere at the shower, and placing the mother-to-be on a chair for her to sit on as she opens her gifts and passes them around for her guests to view (Clarke 2004).
The shower, in many senses, serves to indoctrinate the woman into the special behaviors associated with her new role in society. Paradoxically, though, the cute games played at the shower tend to infantilize the woman and return her to innocence--and the central chair, often decorated, also gestures toward a symbolic return to the virginal, nonsexual state associated with Mother Mary, Queen of the World. The modern baby shower, then, supports the themes regarding the woman’s transition to a more dependent, but pure state while also creating and reinforcing the personal relationships which form the community (Crouch and Manderson 1993).
Although baby showers continue to take place in the twenty-first century much as they did in the 1950s, there are several important changes. Perhaps the most obvious change is the role of technology. Invitations, traditionally mailed, now are often emailed in elaborate graphically designed invitations. In addition, baby shower participants may attempt to identify baby parts on an ultrasound as a game, or even hold virtual baby showers. While traditional baby showers in the 1950s were characterized by exclusively female guests at home, twenty-first century baby showers include workplace, mixed sex, and feminist showers.
The workplace shower is held outside the home but, like traditional baby showers, it often has thematic decorations and gifts are opened and ceremonially passed around--hough games are more characteristic of an “all-female” workplace shower. The mix of public and private lives in the workplace, however, can lead to tension as it marks the blurred boundaries between a woman’s public and private lives, roles, and communities.
The mixed-sex shower differs radically from a traditional shower in that it signals the transition to parenthood of both parents. Alcohol replaces punch and soda drinks, and childlike games and the central chair are usually not part of the shower. Gifts, however, are still opened and passed around.
The feminist shower is, like traditional showers, exclusively female, though they tend not to be decorated and childlike games are not played. There is no central “throne,” and gifts usually are not passed around. The nature of the gifts differ sharply from a traditional shower because they are rarely for the baby and tend to be a personal, sensual gift for the mother that reaffirms the her role as an independent, professional adult and, by extension, also gestures to the deep tensions about the transitions to motherhood many liberal feminists may feel (Fischer and Gainer 1993).
From ancient Egyptian post-birth rituals to twenty-first century baby showers embedded in rites of consumerism, the ways a culture chooses to welcome a newborn child into its community reveals society’s most fundamental values and expectations. The emerging forms of baby showers seem to demonstrate the tensions and ambiguities modern women face in their transition to motherhood. In many cases, women no longer engage in the traditional separation from an old role as they enter a new role, but rather seek to add an additional role to their existing ones. While there may be many different types of baby showers today, the various rituals associated with pregnancy and childbirth are similar in that they all wish the best for mother and child.
-- Posted November 1, 2008
Clarke, Alison J. 2004. “Maternity and Materiality: Becoming a Mother in Consumer Culture.” In Consuming Motherhood. Eds. Janelle S. Taylor, Linda L. Layne, Danielle F. Wozniak. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Crouch, Mira and Lenore Manderson. 1993. New Motherhood: Cultural and Personal Transitions in the 1980s. Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.
Fischer, Eileen and Brenda Gainer. 1993. “Baby Showers: A Rite of Passage in Transition.” Advances in Consumer Research. 20:320-324.
Gelis, Jacques. 1991. History of Childbirth: Fertility, Pregnancy, and Birth in Early Modern Europe. Trans. Rosemary Morris. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
Johnston, Sarah Illes. 2004. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University of Press.
Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. 1999. The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.