Babies in folklore

This appeared in the North Clare Local in October. 

Image by Griffin2 via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Griffin2 via Wikimedia Commons

Last month, I mentioned the old Christian belief of churching. This was a blessing women received after childbirth. Related to Old Testament beliefs that a woman was somehow tainted by labour, it has a rather curious history.

Although it was ostensibly about thanking God for the woman’s safe deliverance through childbirth, women were not allowed back into church until the ceremony had taken place. In Ireland and Britain, women were advised not to go out at all until they had been churched, as they were attractive to the fairies in this state.

The records are sketchy of churching in pre-medieval times, suggesting it was introduced in the Middle Ages. The Reformation did nothing to halt churching, and it was still a feature of Protestantism, especially in the Church of England. On occasion it was done in the woman’s home, but it was more commonly done in a church. In Herefordshire, it was not considered appropriate for the woman’s husband to sit in the same pew or, in some parishes, even attend the ceremony. Some women in early modern times had to wear veils or carry special candles throughout the church.

Women were to be “decently apparelled” and had to sit in a special “churching seat”. Whatever the intentions of the ceremony, it’s easy to see how it could be embarrassing or even humiliating for the women concerned, especially in an era where sex and its consequences were a source of shame. Perhaps cruellest of all, women were still required to be churched even if their baby was stillborn or died soon after birth.

In the 19th century, churching fell out of favour in the Anglican tradition. It did not catch on in the US, and in Finland it was discontinued. However, the Catholic Church maintained it up to the 1960s. Mary Higgins, a midwife from Cork, told the Irish Independent in 2012 what churching meant for her mother in 1957: “The whole thing was about childbirth being considered as unclean. After that you could go back to attending Mass. It meant that the baby was always christened in the absence of the mother.”

Superstition did not stop after christening and churching. Babies are delicate little things, and there was still plenty that could go wrong.

Babies were not allowed look into a mirror. There are a whole host of possible explanations as to why this was, from it would give them a stammer, render them mute, expose them to demons or even lead to death. Humans, generally speaking, do not recognise themselves in a mirror until they are 18 months old, and psychoanalysts refer to this as the ‘mirror stage’.

Mekooo89 via Wikimedia Commons

Mekooo89 via Wikimedia Commons

To prevent your baby growing up to be a thief, don’t cut their nails before six months of age. Cutting their hair before a year will lead to them being tongue-tied.

In a previous article about changelings, I mentioned how babies and young children were especially attractive to fairies. Iron was left near the crib, or at the door of the house. Indeed old horseshoes, a constant of many kitchen, gained their lucky reputation for merely being handy pieces of iron, put up on the wall to ward off fairies.

Many of us have heard recent theories that birth order affects a person’s path in life. For example, and eldest child will be used to responsibility and will become a high achiever. Whether or not there is a grain of truth in this, we have all heard of the magical properties of a seventh son of a seventh son.

These individuals are rarer than hens’ teeth these days, but the seventh son of a seventh son was renowned in Ireland as a healer. A seventh-son Irish emigrant to Scranton, Pennsylvania, Paul Joseph Cawley, was renowned for his healing abilities. Funnily enough in South America, these boys were likely to be werewolves. The singer Perry Como was a real-life seventh son of a seventh son, but his magical abilities are unknown.

A baby born with a ‘caul’, a piece of membrane covering the head, is said to be psychic. A Hallowe’en baby can see spirits, a baby born on a stormy night will be nervous, and a child born on a moonlit night will be clever.

Many of us are familiar with the old rhyme concerning the days of the week: Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go,

Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Saturday’s child works hard for a living,

But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day

Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.”

As a Thursday baby, I’d like to think this is true. May all readers with new babies in their lives be blessed with health and happiness.

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