Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Birth and baptism in Czech society

Beginning of new life was always covered with a bit of mystery. It is painful for the mother, full of changes for her family, it brings new hope and promises. What are the customs which were connected to the birth of child and its baptism?

Not only Czech society of the past was full of different prejudices about birth of child. Christian point of view has its root in the pagan religions, we can see customs which were present in the society from its beginning. There were many customs connected to the driving out of negative forces, protection of the child and his mother before demons and so on. 

But we will begin in the beginning, with the birth itself. It was a female thing in the past - not only from the view of the fact that women give birth, but there were quite often no men allowed in the room where the the woman was giving birth to the child. There were women from the family present (mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, sometimes daughters) and also midwife whose task was to make it a bit easier for the mother. 

There weren't much to be done. There were no anesthetics, no other chemical help - just herbs and other natural helpers. Midwife was not a doctor, she was "just" someone who got her knowledge and experience from previous midwife. The knowledge was transferred from generation to generation and not too many changes were done during the centuries. The customs connected to the birth were quite rigid and it was hard to change them even in the beginning of modern age. 

No one took too much care about hygiene during and after the birth. This lack of hygiene was quite often the reason why the child or his mother died soon after the birth. Mother was taken as an impure during childbed and therefor she was forbidden to leave the house and the area ("corner") which was dedicated to her. She could be visited, mainly by the women from neighborhood who brought her strong soup, sweets and so on. She spent there four to six weeks, after which she was obliged to undergo the rite of purification in the church.

One of the strongest superstitions connected to birth and early childhood was bewitching of the child. Our ancestors believed that the child can be bewitched by a look of an evil person (witch or demon). They tried to protect the child by different things - wearing red color, covering the child outside, hiding it into the "corner" in the first weeks of life and so on. 

Baptism in 18th century

Baptism was another thing. It must have been done as early after the birth as possible to be sure the child wouldn't die without the baptism. Father of the child (if the child was legitimate) with child and the godparents went to the church just few hours after the birth. This was really risky for the healt of the child, mainly during the winter. Mother was not present as she was forbidden to leave the house and/or enter the church. 

Godparents were carefully picked from the family or among the neighbors. Their task was to take care about child in case both parents died so they had to be picked really carefully. It was quite often someone from the family - uncle, aunt or cousin of the child's parents - or someone from the higher class of village society - miller, blacksmith, large farmer or reeve. 

The given name was also very important because the child was given in the protection of the saint whose name it had. The name was often chosen according to the nearest feasts. Therefor we have many Jiri's (George) in April as St. George is on 24th April, many Václav's in September (28th September), many Barbora's in December (4th December) etc.


  1. To modern ears it sounds very anti-female, but it's just history that we must accept at face value and not criticize with our mindsets. I'm curious about the "purification" ritual for the mothers after the several weeks had passed.

    Julie (Canada)

  2. Julie, more about purification (or churching of women) can be found in the Wikipedia article:

  3. Here in the USA, Catholics pick Godparents for their children for the same reason as over in Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia in older times. I do not know about the other religions. It is a good custom to have, as we never know when our time on earth is up.

  4. It is was interesting to read that the father takes the child to church to be baptized and the mother stays home. This explains why so often in birth records the mothers parents and of place of birth is different from child to child. The father/husband isn't giving the correct information. I thought the priest was entering the wrong information. Thank you for this article.