Rob and Kim Goldman wanted to welcome their first-born daughter, Sienna, into the world in a special way.
“My family kept asking me over and over again when I was going to have the baby baptized,” Kim Goldman said.
But a traditional church baptism didn’t feel right for the Goldman family, who live in Staten Island, N.Y. Kim was raised Catholic, and Rob is Jewish. While they follow traditions of both religions, neither regularly attend church or synagogue.
So the Goldmans decided to welcome Sienna with a different kind of ceremony: a baby blessing.
In the past decade, baby blessings — which can be an alternative to a traditional baptism or christening — have become more popular among couples of different faiths and those who may not have ties to a church. One benefit, say families, is that they can be tailored to exactly reflect the parent’s wishes — and help quell family requests for a church welcoming.
For Sienna’s blessing, held at a catering hall when she was 3 months old, the Goldmans borrowed elements from their religious backgrounds. Sienna was given a Hebrew name, Shimra Libi, which means guarded one and protected one. She was anointed with oil, a nod to her mother’s Catholic heritage. Standing before friends and family, her parents also made her a promise, not unlike wedding vows, in which they pledged to love her unconditionally and guide her through life.
A decade ago, information about baby blessings was hard to find, says Rev. Susanna Stefanachi Macomb, an ordained interfaith minister in New York who has officiated baby blessings for 12 years, including Sienna’s. Now a number of interfaith ministers officiate or help plan such ceremonies as part of their services. And Macomb has completed a book on baby blessings that will be published next year.
Baby blessings can help fill the need for ritual, says Macomb. “If you’re not religious, or don’t belong to a specific religious community, you still have that need.”
Bypassing religious institutions
Their rise in popularity may be driven in part by some members of the post-baby boomer generation who have bypassed religious institutions and are experimenting in ways that make sense to them spiritually, said Richard Flory, a research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.
“It usually comes out of a dissatisfaction of what they were brought up with,” he said. "They don’t want to participate in (religious) institutions. But what they do want is to be part of some spiritual activity that meets their understanding, to create some sort of spiritual identity for themselves.”
A large majority of Americans still keep the faith in both religious belief and practice, but secularism is on the rise. In 2006, 12 percent of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated with a religious tradition, according to a report published by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. In 1987, that number was 8 percent. Among members of Generation X and Generation Y — those at or nearing the prime age for parenthood — the percentage is even higher, at 14 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
But the emergence of baby blessings is likely a reflection of how much we’re blending traditions of faith, rather than abandoning them entirely. In the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 22 percent of families said they identified with a mixture of religions.
Baptism without a church
During the outdoor ceremony, the officiant baptized her, something many families don't realize is possible if they don't belong to a church, says Rev. Debora Hall Bradley, a nondenominational, interfaith minister in Cincinnati, Ohio. She says parents often ask her if their baby can be baptized even if they're not church members.
“My reply is yes, you can, and you don’t even need to have an officiant,” she says.
During Anya's ceremony, members of the Maley family sang songs, and they included Anya’s birth mother by publicly sharing a chalice with her, symbolizing friendship.
Meg Maley’s mother, Peggy Schulz, had never heard of a baby blessing and didn’t know what to expect.
“We were all sitting there with tears in our eyes because the whole thing was so beautiful,” she said.
During the baby blessing, Anya wore a christening blanket made by her grandmother. And while Anya’s ceremony was not held in a Catholic church, “They baptized her in the name of God,” Schulz said.
While Meg Maley wanted to respect her family members wishes, she reminded herself that the ceremony was was about the baby, not them.
“We were all brought together," she says, "by honoring this child.”