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Requirements during the postpartum period

During the time between the birth and the churching, the postpartum woman had to remain at home and did not even have to attend Sunday mass and Holy Days of Obligation.

The origin of this custom was religious as according to Mosaic Law, a woman who had a child was unclean and should not touch a holy thing or go to the church until forty days after her purification (Leviticus, 12, 2-8).

Using a tile as protection

During that period of reclusion, if the woman had to leave the house to hang out washing, collect wood or go to the vegetable garden or to the animal pen, she would to do so with her head covered with a tile taken from her own roof, and keep it in place until she returned back to the house.

This ancient practice reflects an attitude according to which the whole is represented by the part, in this case, the house by the roof and this by the tile, so that while the woman remained under a tile, she was not breaking the obligation not to leave her home.

Blessing the mother

A woman who had given birth received a special blessing before entering the church for the first time after the delivery. This rite was known as a standard practice in all the places surveyed. However, it was not required by any ecclesiastical precept and the Roman Ritual refers to it as a “pious and laudable” custom.

The post partum blessing fell out of practice in the 1960s according to the surveys. The new Baptism ritual began to be introduced at that time in the parishes and it included the blessing of the mother and the father after the baptism of the child.

The Purification of the Virgin Mary as the archetype

In several surveys, the people interviewed expressly related this custom with the act by the Virgin Mary when she presented her son Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem, days after her purification (Luke, 2, 22).

In Amézaga de Zuya and Gamboa (A), it is said that this ceremony was carried out following in the steps of the Virgin Mary and in fact was known as “the presentation of the child”, where the mother who had given birth sought to repeat the actions of Our Lady.

Length of the postpartum quarantine

In many locations surveyed, the people recalled that the new mother would wait forty days after giving birth to go to church and be blessed.

However, according to the same people, that religious period[1] was shortened with the passing of time and adapted to the practical needs of the mother.

Churching ritual

Several local descriptions of the churching ritual after the purification period of the new mother are included below. Even though this custom fell out of practices thirty years ago, the details of the act are still very much in the memory of the people we interviewed.

In Abadiano (B), this ritual, elixan sartzie, was held two or three weeks after the birth of the child, when the mother had recovered. She would take the child in her arms and walk around the house or vegetable garden a couple of times to make sure she was strong enough to make the journey to the church with the infant. She would be sometimes accompanied by a female neighbour. When they reached the church door, she would be welcomed by the priest who said a prayer. The mother would take hold of the stole and carrying the child and a candle, she would enter the church, were the ceremony ended with the blessing.

Visiting the postpartum mother and celebrating the end of the postpartum period

The celebrations to mark the birth revolved around the new mother, ume egin berria. Her relatives, sisters, sisters-in-law and aunts, along with her female neighbours and friends, would visit her and bring her gifts. When the new mother had recovered from giving birth, she would show her gratitude by hosting a tea or a lunch to which the women who had taken part in the delivery and who brought gifts would be invited. Several surveys noted that this celebration was more important than the one for the baptism and that the guests were mainly women. It was held at the end of the post-partum period and was called ermakariak, martopilak and atsolorra.

They were mainly held in Gipuzkoa, but also in Bizkaia and in northern Navarra. On the other hand, none of the people surveyed in Alava recall any celebration being held after the mother had recovered.

Offering up of children in chapels and at shrines

As previously indicated, mothers usually took their children to the parish church to present the infant. They also sometimes went for that same purpose to chapels and shrines to seek the protection of Our Lady and of the saints and to make offerings.

In Artziniega (A), the child was taken to the Chapel of San Antonio on 14 June and to the Chapel of La Encina on the first Wednesday of Pentecost. In Hondarribia (G), some mothers usually offered the infant to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the charter town. In Artajona (N), they took their children to Our Lady of Jerusalem to seek her protection.

  1. This forty-day period is part of the religious calendar: it is time between the Birth of Our Lord, 25 December, and the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady, 2 February, commonly known as Candlemas.