Welcome, baby, in our very own way

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All those years ago in Bethlehem, baby Jesus was welcomed into the world by three wise men. Today growing numbers of new parents are looking for a non-religious way to welcome their infants to the world. But what is the alternative to a christeni ng?

People want a ceremony with promises and vows, but without notions of renouncing "sin" and the devil or "turning to Jesus". So many parents are approaching secular organisations, such as the British Humanist Association, for guidance.

The BHA publishes a book on how to structure such a ceremony, called New Arrivals. "Celebrants" are encouraged to use it as a reference point, to spark ideas rather than as a set way of conducting a service. Most parents try to keep it simple: they statetheir commitment to the new baby and their acceptance of responsibility for the child's well-being, using informal, loving language. Some mothers and fathers include poetry, poems and music in the ritual. The book also tackles practical problems, such as what to call the "godparent" - "supporting adult", "mentor" or "friend-parent" are options - and where to hold the party.

Parents are encouraged to conduct the ceremonies themselves, in the family home, or in a friend's house. If this is not feasible, a public hall can be hired; and for those who quail at the prospect of leading the ritual, a BHA celebrant can be called in for a small fee.

Dennis Neale, 74, a former National Trust charity worker, holds birth ceremonies in and around Twickenham. He charges between £35 and £45 for an afternoon. "Birth ceremonies are a way of introducing a child to friends and family, and of welcoming the baby into the world. It is very much the same as a christening, except that the baby does not get swamped with water and we don't call on the Almighty to bless the child. It is always a happy occasion."

Esther Oxford spoke to three sets of parents who designed their own ritual for their babies.

A taste of honey and a collection of poems for Bi Bi

Kate Stoddart, 33, a museum exhibition officer, and Mathew Letts, 33, an architect, live in Nottingham. Bi Bi is their one-year-old daughter.

We waited five years for Bi Bi, so when she arrived we wanted to mark her birth with something special. We wanted a confirmation that she had arrived and we wanted to make a public commitment to her. Making up our own ceremony seemed the natural thing todo.

We invited eight people to our house - our immediate family, Bi Bi's godparents and a handful of friends. All of them were asked to read a poem or a short piece of prose. The idea was for them to show some commitment to Bi Bi without having to make vows.

Before the service, my partner and I looked into how different religions celebrated the birth of a child. One ritual I particularly liked came from the Muslim faith: to put a spoonful of honey on to the baby's tongue one month after the birth - it is a symbol of a sweet welcome into the world. I think Bi Bi was a bit surprised to be fed the honey. She wasn't too keen on all the attention either! My brother was the first to speak. He read a poem by Keats about a man who goes fishing, then pulls in a fishwhich turns into a woman. My father talked about how children are like arrows from a bow; that although they are part of you, it is important to let them go and follow their own path. My mother read one of her own poems - a funny poem - about how Bi Bi was a present from all the generations of women before me in our family.

When it came to my turn in the ceremony I spoke about what I hoped to contribute to her life - how I wanted to be there for her but I didn't want to be everything for her - I wanted to show her freedom and independence from an early age.

I talked about how I'd like to take her for long walks, to show her how to love art and good food. Then I spoke of the need to love one's fellow man and how I hoped she would grow up to see herself as a European.

In case that all sounded a bit too ambitious, I said that I'd like to offer Bi Bi the kind of upbringing and childhood that my parents gave me. It was my way of saying thank you to them for giving me a happy childhood.

My husband couldn't say much. We'd waited so long for Bi Bi's birth that he could only cry from happiness. I read his piece for him - it is too personal to talk about in detail, but he basically described how he felt when he watched Bi Bi sleeping. How he had no aspirations for her, just emotions about her. Afterwards we threw confetti over Bi Bi and planted a Chinese tree.

Further information: The British Humanist Association: 0608 652063; The Family Covenant Association: 0386 555599; Engineers of the Imagination: 01229 581 127.

A dawn chorus on the beach in Wales Mary-Anne Roberts, 31, a theatre performer, lives in Cardiff with her partner, Thomas O' Reilly, 30, a builder. They have two children, Oisin, 5, and Aisling, 2.

I was working with a Ghanaian woman when I was pregnant. We used to have conversations about how the church had taken away people's power to carry out their own ceremonies. She also spoke about the birth rituals held by her tribe in Ghana. The ceremony was usually three months after the birth by the seaside, at dawn.

We decided to welcome Aisling into the world when she was eight months old, on a beach in South Wales, at seven in the morning. There was much moaning from the 30 odd guests when we woke them - the weather was grey, foggy and drizzling - but once we began the descent to the beach, they started singing.

My husband carried Aisling. He wore a long cape made of foliage, woven specially for the occasion. The guests had spent the previous week learning chants and songs for the procession, so they kept chanting and singing throughout. They were also carrying gifts for Aisling: posies and rings of flowers to put on her head, and poems.

We started the ceremony with the words: "Conceived in love, bathed in light, we welcome you." Later we borrowed the Ghanaian tradition of dropping one drop of alcohol and one drop of water on the tongue of the newborn. Then we said: "They are as different as truth and lies. Always pick the path of truth.'' That was more for the benefit of the children around. The baby could not be expected to understand! Afterwards someone brought coffee, brandy and bagels down to the beach. Then we went to St Donat's castle for breakfast. My husband was crying, he was overwhelmed by the occasion. I didn't cry - I was too busy keeping the whole event together.

It was only when I returned to Cardiff that I started thinking about the ceremony and how much it had meant to me. When I got back to the house I went round to visit my neighbours. When they saw my eyes they thought I was on drugs.

That light feeling lasted two weeks - I felt so moved by the occasion. It had been so simple, yet so meaningful.

Salt, lemon and sugar Belinda Ford, 29, is a housing manager. She is married to Andrew Ford, a chartered accountant. They live with six-month-old Emily Bronwen in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.

We chose the chap who married us - an ex-vicar - to be celebrant at a service in our house. When he asked us to write a script, we did so, expecting him to change it. He didn't. He just read it straight out.

He surprised us again half-way through the ceremony by introducing a Jewish custom: putting a dab of salt, lemon and sugar on Emily's tongue. The lemon represents intelligence and being able to separate good from evil; the sugar is to celebrate all things beautiful and healthy, and the salt symbolises all things sad. Emily wasn't keen on the salt and lemon. But the celebrant jiggled her around to keep her quiet.

After that we had a series of readings. This was harder to prepare than we imagined: Shakespeare was too sombre, other writers seemed too insincere. Someone read a passage from Laurie Lee's The First Born, which worked well - it was about how a baby changes your lives.

I kept it simple. I said I would care for her and give her the freedom to develop how she wanted. I promised her that I would support her throughout life.

When it came to the bit where the celebrant says: "Will you love her?" and "Will you protect her?" we just replied "We will." We didn't want to be pretentious.

The whole event was pretty informal. Emily wore a dress that had been given to her (she usually wears Babygros) and we planted a tree for her; we also asked the 32 adults and five babies to sign a book. For the rest of the afternoon we hung around the patio eating and drinking.

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