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Civil baptisms in France: do you know about this option?

As these secular celebrations gain popularity, we look at the history, costs and the ceremony itself

Twins are welcomed into the Republic at a recent civil baptism Pic: Letty David

The vogue for civil christenings is gathering pace. 

Although impossible to count accurately, as they are not recorded in official registers, latest estimates from 2019 suggest that 400 civil christenings were carried out in Paris in 2019, and 250 in Lyon. 

Le baptême républicain dates from 1792 when registers of births, marriages, and deaths were transferred from the Catholic church (judged too royalist) to the French state. 

Civil baptisms were introduced two years later in 1794. They fell out of use but were revived by socialist maires during the 1930s, and have been steadily gaining in popularity since the turn of the century. 

These non-religious ceremonies celebrate the arrival of a new baby and welcome them as a member of the Republic. 

Civil christenings have no more legal status than religious ones

Civil christenings have no more legal status than religious ones, and in some ways even less because they are not recorded by the mairie, whereas the Catholic church keeps formal records of people who have been baptised. 

Godparents can be appointed as part of the ceremony but, like their religious counterparts, they have no legal status unless an agreement is formally drawn up by parents and godparents and signed at a notaire’s office. 

This could be an arrangement to take care of the godchild in the event of the parents’ death, for example. 

The ceremony is free but the maire is not legally obliged to perform it. 

In rural communities where villages facing depopulation are keen to welcome families with young children, it is rare for requests to be refused. 

If they are, parents can simply ask at another mairie. 

There are lots of reasons to have a civil ceremony. It is a way of publicly stating the emotional and moral links of the godparents to the child, of introducing the child to the local community, and of affirming belief in the values of the French Republic. 

It also offers a rite of passage for people without firm religious affiliations, and can provide a solution for parents of differing faiths. 

Read more: Less than half of people believe in God in 2021, French poll finds

There are very few rules

Unlike a religious christening, there are very few rules. 

There is no requirement for parents to be married, for example, there can be any number of godparents, and the form the ceremony takes can be worked out with the presiding maire. 

Indeed, the beauty of a civil christening is that it can be made-to-measure for each family. 

The maire will usually make a speech and conduct a ceremony during which the parents and godparents sign baptism certificates. 

After this, speeches, readings, songs, poetry, and music are all commonly used, and some people have come up with more complex ideas. 

One of these is the sand ritual, which involves pouring small quantities of coloured sand into a glass jar. 

Each person adds sand of a different colour and, once the top is on, the jar is shaken to symbolise the inseparability of the family and community. 

While each colour is still visible, they are inextricably mixed together. 

Other people plant trees or bury time capsules. 

Parents generally use a christening as an excuse to get the whole family together and invite lots of friends. 

Just make sure you establish the seating capacity at the mairie first! 

After the ceremony, there is usually a big party and it is traditional for guests to give the baby presents. 

Another ritual (also used at weddings) is to give guests a bag containing five sugared almonds, representing the blessings heaped on the baby: health, fertility, happiness, longevity and prosperity.

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