Last Saturday we had a naming day for my 9 month-old niece, and my sister, being cool like she is, picked a Humanist ceremony.
It was a big family do in my parents’ garden, and relatives came from far and wide. The weather was a bit variable, but we managed to grab the perfect half hour in the early afternoon, and we were all gathered in the shade of the apple tree by the obviously experienced Celebrant. I was at the front near the baby, as Jane had asked me to be an Honorary Parent, or as it became known, a Goodparent1. This was lovely of them, and I’m chuffed they thought of me. I am, along with Aimee’s aunt and a family friend, tasked with being available if ever Aimee needs help, as well as generally checking things are going ok. I can do this, although it does conflict with my role as uncle, which traditionally involves giving sweets at inappropriate times and the teaching of rude words.
I’d figured being at the front would make it difficult to take photos, but after a few attempts to hand over my camera were met with frightened looks I decided to wing it, and it didn’t matter at all. The whole event was actually pleasingly informal, but sincere with it.
I liked the tone of the Celebrant’s script. It wasn’t too cloying or false, and there was no mention of religion. It expressed, in my opinion, exactly the right sentiments:
As she grows older she will no doubt ask many questions and you will all do your best to answer them truthfully. She will also ask questions that no one can answer, and have to accept that there is a great deal of uncertainty in life because of our own basic fallibility. But whatever her age she will deserve the tender love and firm guidance, which only you as parents, grandparents, friends and teachers can give.
Moreover, children have a right to a faith in themselves, in the story of mankind and in their heritage. It is up to those around her to give her as good a start in life as possible; to provide her with the best example of the way humans should relate to all others around them; to surround her with the warmth of your affection and love, to support her through all the ups and downs of her life. In that way the cycle of human relationships can survive, sometimes against all the odds. Who knows what she may accomplish in her life with help and encouragement from those who will influence her.
I particularly liked that Aimee was always referred to as an individual. She was never implied to be the possession of her parents, but a unique person who would be brought up to think for herself. Stonking.
A few weeks ago I volunteered to read a poem, then agonized for ages. I found a few possibilities, but most were sickly sweet. Neil Gaiman had a couple of good ones, but they were a little dark, and I quite liked a Roman Dirge, er, dirge, before thankfully coming to my senses2. Dawkins has written some nice pieces for his children, but I didn’t want to mention religion explicitly. I saw a suggestion of Kurt Vonnegut’s:
Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’
which came close. But eventually I went with ‘My Mom and Dad’, by Bill Watterson. I prefaced it by saying I was reading in my role as uncle, and on behalf of Aimee, then looked down and hoped I wasn’t going to ruin the whole day:
My Mom and Dad are not what they seem.
Their dull appearance is part of their scheme.
I know of their plans. I know their techniques.
My parents are outer space alien freaks!
They landed on Earth in spaceships humongous.
Posing as grownups, they now walk among us.
My parents deny this, but I know the truth.
They’re here to enslave me and spoil my youth.
Early each morning, as the sun rises,
Mom and Dad put on their Earthling disguises.
I knew right away their masks weren’t legit.
Their faces are lined – they sag and don’t fit.
The Earth’s gravity makes them sluggish and slow.
They say not to run, wherever I go.
They live by the clock. They’re slaves to routines.
They work the year ’round. They’re almost machines.
They deny that TV and fried food have much worth.
They cannot be human. They’re not of this Earth.
I cannot escape their alien gaze,
and they’re warping my mind with their alien ways.
For sinister plots, this one is a gem.
They’re bringing me up to turn me into them.
The poem was originally published in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. I’d run it by my parents beforehand, but was still pretty nervous. Thankfully it went down well, and everybody laughed. The Celebrant asked if she could keep a copy for recommending to others, too(!). Dad wrote his own poem and I think he was more nervous than me, but it was excellent and also got a good reaction.
We Goodparents promised to do our duties, during which Meg the Labrador celebrated by having a mad moment and sprinting through the crowd at full pelt, then Aimee was presented with a necklace and everyone raised their glasses to her.
I took a few hundred photos over the afternoon, and in every single one my sister has the biggest smile on her face. Which is lovely – it’s great to see her so happy.
I had a chance to talk to the BHA Celebrant beforehand. I rarely encounter other BHA members, and it was nice to chat with somebody who’s followed the ups-and-downs of secular humanism over the last year. We cheered about the abolition of the blasphemy law and rolled our eyes at the English rules on weddings. She’s trained to perform wedding ceremonies, and in Scotland could be licensed to perform a legal ceremony, but England only allows places to be licensed. She also does multiple funerals per week and 7-8 naming ceremonies a year.
There were a couple of religious people there, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit nervous about the ceremony. Obviously Christenings are the usual default, but they’re just creepy. Anyone who thinks babies are born sinful and need to be cleansed can stay the hell away from my niece (I can say that – it’s my job). Thankfully the Humanist ceremony didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t stridently secular, nor too gushing, and was actually full of meaningful things. I thought it was an effective and appropriate ritual, and I’ll certainly recommend it. All the pictures are here.