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What Is a Baby Shower? (A Brief History)

April 27, 2018

A baby shower is a celebration of new life. For mothers, it can celebrate entering motherhood. For party guests, it is an occasion to support the mother or parents-to-be and bring gifts for the soon-to-be-born.

The name “baby shower” has a lot of modern connotations surrounding it. When someone invites you to a shower, you may picture light cakes and frosting and a pregnant woman unwrapping gifts containing funny onesies and cradles. As it’s such a popular party these days, it might be difficult to imagine baby showers in the past. But, surprisingly, baby showers have a long, rich history that stretches back thousands of years.


In her book, Celebrating Life Customs around the World: From Baby Showers to Funerals, Victoria Williams writes that both the ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks had celebratory rituals after childbirth. When a Greek baby was 5 or 7 days old, the baby’s father would walk him or her around the hearth in a ritual called Amphidromia, which marked the child’s entry into the world. On the 10th day, the mother would hold a ritual called Dekate. After a meal, the mother -- not the guests -- would dedicate gifts, such as children’s clothing, to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth.


Later on, the practice shifted from the mother giving gifts to the mother receiving gifts. In the Renaissance, childbirth trays containing gifts and food, would be presented to the mother. Tiya Miles of The Huffington Post writes that colonial American women held “birthing parties”, where they drank “groaning beer” and ate “groaning cakes” in unified fortitude against labor pains. After the birth, a second feast would be held in celebration. As Miles points out, the idea of giving gifts for children before birth was not yet popular due to high infant mortality rates; many were reluctant to give gifts when the child might not live long, much less survive childbirth. Indeed, the gathering of a women community was partly for comfort in case of the “cradle-to-grave” possibility.

Williams notes that during the Victorian Era, “there were many taboos about the public appearance of pregnant women”(23). So new mothers held women-only tea parties after giving birth. Guests gave hand-made gifts while the grandmother traditionally gave silver. If a woman had another party after her second pregnancy, this was known as a “sprinkling”, an event that is still being celebrated today.


According to Miles, the modern concept of baby showers emerged in the early 1930s. In the 1937 edition of her book, Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, high society author Emily Post gives a short description of the “stork shower”. She writes, “Showers are friendly neighborhood gatherings held usually in honor of a bride-to-be... or in expectation of the arrival of the stork.” This event was more of a neighborhood focused party for the mother-to-be to receive gifts for the upcoming “stork”. Post devotes more time to describing the “Christening Party”, which was more popular at the time.


One reason people were reluctant to throw an elaborate party was the fact that gifts were expensive luxuries. But with the onset of consumerism and the rise of mass-produced goods in the 1950s and 60s, gifts became much easier to buy and baby showers grew more popular.  By the post-World War II era, baby showers had become a firm institution, as important as Mother’s Day.


Like bridal showers, baby showers used to be small parties with only female attendees. Shivani Vora of The New York Times writes that while “baby showers are still all-girl get-togethers spent sipping tea and playing games”, there is a growing trend towards turning baby showers into coed events, such as gender-reveal parties or even nights out at a bar.

The practice of baby showers varies widely based on religion. Williams covers a few different traditions outside the American one. For instance, the Pagan celebration of new life is still performed today. Pagan parents “hold a formal welcoming ceremony for their baby”(24), in which the baby is introduced to the community and sometimes given the Pagan equivalent of godparents. She further writes that a baby naming ceremony, or den to, is a “traditional custom for many African communities”. For the Akan tribe in Ghana, these ceremonies are extremely important before they believe that the name serves as a “spiritual identification” along with a sign of respect for the baby’s ancestors. 


Baby showers have not stopped evolving over time and probably won’t stop now. So take this opportunity to make your baby shower into whatever you want it to be for you and your child. This is your chance to celebrate new life in your own style. Keep reading in the weeks ahead for  tips to help you along the way.

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