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Children were traditionally baptised shortly after being born. This religious practice was in response to the commonly accepted belief in the Basque Country that baptism is the sacrament that makes a person a Christian and cleanses them from the original sin with which humans are born. Even though the rite essentially follows the guidelines of the Catholic Church, each region has its own specific features in the details on how it is conducted.

Baptising newborns

Children were baptised as soon as possible, following an ancient prescription. In Zeanuri (B), the following rule was followed until the mid-20th century: if the child was born in the early morning, they would be baptised in the afternoon of the same day, jaiotako egunen barruen; if that was not possible, it would the following day, jaio ta lehenengo egunian and no later than the second day, jaio ta egun bi barru. This would ensure that the newborn would not die without being a Christian, ez eitean hil kristiñau izan barik, and without being able to go to heaven. This importance given to baptising the newborn as soon as possible, len bait lasterren, was very common (Nabarniz, Orozko, Urduliz-B; Bidegoian, Gatzaga[1]-G).

Emergency baptism

Children born at home and at risk of not surviving, erkinek, or those born early, zazpikiek, (Nabarniz, Zeanuri-B) were usually baptised immediately by the midwife or the doctor. This rite generally known as an “emergency baptism" was also known as: "relief baptism" (Amézaga de Zuya-A), "distress baptism" (Moreda-A), "pressing need baptism" (Portugalete-B), "relief water" (Moreda-A), "etxe-bautismue" (Markina-B), "etxe-bautizoa" (Abadiano and Urduliz-­B).

People attending the baptism

Except in the case of well-off families and people living in urban centres, the father did not generally attend the baptism as “he had to earn a living” (Viana-N). The presence of the father of the infant at the baptism was seen in very few of the places surveyed and the mother would remain in bed.

Holder of the child

In general, the midwife or the nurse midwife was the person tasked with dressing the child for the baptism and taking them to the font of the church until the 1940s.

New baptism ritual

The new baptism ritual for children, in force since 1970, got rid of many of the old rites that came from the Catechumen period and kept and adapted those referring to the baptism itself.

According to the new post-conciliar provisions, the baptism has to be held on a Sunday, the day on which the Church celebrates the Paschal mystery and as a common celebration for all the children who have been born recently. The baptisms generally take place during the Sunday mass.

Hospitality to mark the baptism

Until a quarter of a century ago (1970), baptisms were not usually celebrated with a family party. At most, a small snack was offered to those who had taken part in the entourage. This family event was not held until the mother had recovered from the birth. A ritual meal would then be held to mark the occasion.

Arrebuchas ritual (when the godparents throw sweets and coins)

According to the people surveyed, when the recently baptised child was brought out of the church, the godparents would throw sweets, treats, almonds and coins into the that the children would fight to get hold of them. Then, the group of children would follow the entourage to the home of the new born in the hope of more sweets and money that, sometimes, the godparents would throw from the balcony of the home.


The role of the godfather and the godmother used to be more important, which can be seen from their right for their godson or goddaughter to take their names. This was also reflected in the obligations that they undertook to become the child’s guardians should the parents die – something relatively frequent in the past. During the baptism ceremony, the priest would remind them of their spiritual duties that they had undertaken regarding the baptised child.

Choice of godparents

In Zeanuri (B), they said that less importance was given to choosing the godparents prior to the Spanish Civil War (1936) than nowadays. It was more requesting a favour - Mesedea eskatu besoetan artzeko umea – than a choice as such. Particularly noteworthy was that thegodfather and godmother at that time was always chosen from among the friends of the father or of the mother and from among the neighbours.

Godparents of convenience

The fact that needy families would name better-off people or relatives with no children as godparents was not unusual. In Alava, they were known as “godparents of convenience”, because the aim was to ensure certain advantages, particularly when the child had grown up.

Godparents by chance

The surveys of Ateneo and other authors record a practice that was current in the first decades of the 20th century. It was as follows: when several children died in a family one after another, a godfather and godmother were not chosen beforehand for the following child. In that case, the people who went with the newborn to baptise the child would stand in the porch to the church during the religious ceremony and the first man and woman who left the church would be chosen as godfather and godmother.

Baptismal name

Different factors came into play when choosing the baptism name. In general, the Saints Calendar was the main source of inspiration until the first quarter of the 20th century and, even, until more recently.

In rural villages of that time, the choice of name was usually left up to the priest who would use the Saints Calendar and name the child after the saint of the day on which they were baptised.

Christmas and easter presents

Christmas and Easter presents

A custom that was widespread in the past in both the southern and northern Basque Country was that on Easter Sunday, the godparents – and more frequently the godmother – would give their godchildren special homemade bread.

This practice disappeared as people stopped making bread at home; those gift rolls were made as part of the household's bake. Those few houses that still have their bread oven and some local bakeries continue to make and sell that Easter bread. Yet, the custom has mainly fallen out of fashion.

  1. Pedro Ma ARANEGUI. Gatzaga: una aprox imación a la vida de Salinas de Léniz a comienzos del siglo XX . San Sebastián , 1986, p. 55.