Baby showers. Many feel they are simply glorified parties that allow friends and family to gather, play silly games, eat finger foods and give expectant parents a chance to have one last hoorah before baby arrives while they rack up some sweet baby swag. Sounds like the last dozen you attended right? Well although the term baby shower may be more modern, the history of baby showers, or the tradition of celebrating pregnancy and birth, stretches back centuries and stems from a deeper purpose than just ‘showering’ a mother with rattles and teeny tiny baby socks.
Ancient Egypt and Greece
The first celebrations surrounding pregnancy and birth stretch back to ancient times and came in the form of special rituals or ceremonies that took place after the baby was born. Mothers and their newborns would be secluded for a time and seen as impure or unclean (yes, childbirth has always been on the messy side) so these rituals and ceremonies were vital to welcome the mother back into society, grant them recognition, and integrate the baby into the family home. Babies were often named and introduced during these ceremonies and mothers were gifted with a special meal from close family and friends, as if to say welcome to your new role in life.
Centuries later the rituals honoring new babies and mothers began to take on additional importance in the life of a growing family. During the middle ages a new baby would be celebrated with a baptism ceremony on the day of his/her birth. Godparents, named so by the mother and father, would honor the baby with a special gift like a set of silver spoons. As you might imagine it became tempting for new moms and dads to name multiple godparents in the hopes of getting more gifts. Eventually the Church stepped in and limited the number of godparents a child could have in the hopes that parents would hand out the title on a spiritual basis rather than one that would end in more presents.
It wasn’t until the Victorian Era that fun pregnancy games were incorporated into the celebration. For example, if two teaspoons were accidentally placed together on a saucer it would indicate that another woman might be expecting. This might not sound like much fun but since pregnancy was often kept a secret and appearing in public with a baby bump was considered improper, the game had a sense of scandal attached to it. It was during this period that gifts started to become more personalized for baby and would often be handmade by the guests.
The popularity of baby showers really took off after the WWII baby boom. Showers, now held before the baby was born, often served an economic function providing parents with gifts that would help lighten the financial burden of a new baby. Party themes and other traditions, like placing the mother in a central chair for everyone to watch her open gifts, became staples at this time.
Present day baby showers have reached a whole new level with the addition of technology and (gasp) MEN on the guest list. Guests receive elaborate invitations, party games include trying to identify body parts on an ultrasound, and workplace and co-ed showers allow both parents to share in the celebration and transition into parenthood. The intention of celebrating new life and providing parents with helpful gifts is still present but accompanied by an unspoken motto that the bigger the better and the more thematic the more impressive.
The evolution of baby showers greatly exemplifies how the culture of each era viewed children, motherhood, family, and values. Whether during the 1st century or the 21st, the common goal has always been to wish the mother and baby well. What more could expectant moms (and dads) ask for? It’s nice to know where this age-old practice got its start and, no offense to the baby showers of centuries passed, but I sure am thankful for pastel cupcake icing and watermelons carved to look like baby carriages.