The two women sitting next to me on an Aer Lingus flight to London were the epitome of ‘ladies who have lunch’: perfect tans, expensively highlighted hair, designer handbags.
They seemed to have two main topics of conversation: holidays in Marbella and their plans for their daughters’ First Communion celebrations, no detail of which was overlooked, from the ceremony to the Marian Gale dresses and accessories.
Good for her I thought. You are planning a memorable day for an important rite of passage in a child’s life. They want to make it as special as possible. They have the money to spend, and they choose to spend it on something they think is beautiful.
Critics may say – and have said – that the materialistic focus on First Communion is hardly very spiritual and has at times seemed downright ostentatious: Yes, we’ve seen the stretch limousines outside the church and heard about the helicopter rides as a Communion treat. At a time when budgets are tight and many families are facing a livelihood crisis, can it really be justified that nearly $1,000 is spent as the average communion day expense?
But look at it this way: people remember the day of First Communion for the rest of their lives – Napoleon said it was the most memorable day of his young life. So why not invest it to the best of your ability? For people of faith it is a sacramental occasion of great importance, but it is also a significant milestone for people with shaky faith or just cultural ties to a tradition.
As a rite of passage, it can be compared to the Jewish ritual of the bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for girls), which marks a transition from one stage of development to the next. Incidentally, many secular Jews still take the ceremony seriously and embrace the traditional religious ritual as the child enters puberty, showing their understanding of the Torah and scriptures of their ancestors.
Bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah is closer to confirmation in the Christian tradition in terms of milestones. But First Communion also marks a special milestone in child development – seven years is traditionally the “age of reason”. In Japan, seven was the age at which boys transitioned from the more tender environment of maternal care to the more disciplined and demanding arena of male influence. Psychologists also see the first seven years of life as crucial for memory and education.
Humans need rites and rituals, not only in relation to personal milestones – birthdays are our individual milestones – but in collective and community celebrations.
Modern life has seen a decline in the rituals that commonly mark age transitions. Coming of age, formerly at 21, was once an important gateway to adulthood, with the symbolic handing over of the key to the front door. But now adulthood is something much more blurred: the age of consent varies in different societies from 14 to 18; the voting age is 18 but may now be hovering at 16; the age for graduation and financial independence can go as far as the mid-20s or even later.
The annual rhythm used to be based on the agricultural cycles of sowing and harvesting. Living in Co Clare in the 1930s, Conrad Arensberg, a Harvard anthropologist, noticed how communities lived according to these cycles – from Advent to Epiphany, from Mardi Gras to May, with fasting and feasting in tune with the seasons. Although the Irish are puritanical, he observed, festive days are characterized by high spirits and communal merriment.
Patterns of community experience have naturally declined with modernization and urbanization. But weddings and funerals have recently grown larger and more elaborate, in part because they are among the few communally agreed rites of passage that still exist. And First Communion has proven remarkably resilient in the face of social change – like weddings and funerals, it has attracted more expense and even more commercialization. Then it reflects the way we live now.
Funerals have always been important in Irish life and one report suggested they are tending to become more elaborate. Why not? See the Travelers perform their wonderful funeral rites with feathered horses and flower-bedecked carriages. This is the right way!
Death is the final milestone in life’s mortal journey and deserves full symbolic drama. Weddings and funerals are common to all faiths and none: humanists have been inventive in creating their own ceremonies centered around mating and dispatching, some have also created “naming ceremonies” to replace baptism. First Communion is more Catholic – but why not a secular ceremony for all children at the same time?
In the flat conformity of modern life, we probably need more ceremonial, not less.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/forget-those-qualms-about-flashy-first-holy-communions-we-all-need-the-beauty-of-ceremony-in-our-lives-41568096.html Forget those concerns about “flashy” First Holy Communions. We all need the beauty of ceremony in our lives