If you're entering your thirties, you're likely surrounded by ladies of your acquaintance popping out adorable fat things that scream a lot. It's one of the natural parts of female adulthood; you yourself may also have produced one of these delightful small humans, or be aiming for it. If that's the case, you must agree that in modern Western society, the rituals surrounding childbirth and the aftermath are a bit, well, lacking. The baby shower itself may be codified, but post-birth, we're all mostly expected to send cards, offer help with obtaining sleep or food, and generally be practical. There's no superstitious cheese, no giant man-hat, not even a single wrestled sheep!
This is where history comes in handy. The birth of a healthy child has been, throughout history, something that deserves celebration, and when it comes to really doing it in style, we're massively behind everybody from the ancient Greeks to the medieval Khitans. Even the Victorians knew how to make more of a fuss. Having a new baby is many things, but boring isn't one of them, so I think it's high time we bring back some of the more eccentric, charming bits of historical ritual and celebration about childbirth. It beats a boring old teddy bear any day.
Here are five bizarre and adorable childbirth traditions from history we should bring back.
Ritual Female Shrieking
We don't typically think of birth as quiet, but the ancient Greeks made an art form out of making it extremely noisy. Ancient Greek women wouldn't be alone in childbirth; they'd be attended by a lot of female members of the family, plus the midwife, all helping to fetch and carry and do particular rituals (like the untying of all knots in the vicinity, which was meant to help ease labor). These weren't just practical helpmeets, though. They served an important, and loud, ritual function that kicked in when the baby finally made an appearance.
When the baby was born, every woman in the room would let out an ololuge, an ululating ritual cry that was reserved only for women and served to let everybody in hearing know the good news. Interestingly enough, ololuge wasn't just for birth; it was associated with female ritual cults and other ceremonies, including the slaughter of animals for the gods. It was a very particular scream that was only for women, so you'd have to be up on the news to know whether they were yelling for a newborn or because somebody had just killed a cow.
Offering Mothers Sweets On Special Trays
Motherhood these days does mean the accumulation of gifts, but most of them, sensibly enough, are about the baby: knitted hats, bottles, infinitely expensive strollers that can rock the baby to sleep and teach it Mandarin. The Renaissance Italians, however, had another priority. They wanted to spoil the exhausted new mother rotten, and developed an entire new category of dinnerware to do it.
It became customary for new mothers of noble families to receive a desco da parto, an elaborate and beautifully decorated "birthing tray." They were always expensive and often depicted babies or scenes from the Bible, or even scenes of childbirth itself, plus the family's heraldry. The tray was then used by servants to feed the mother delicacies and to serve well-wishers who'd come to attend her as she nursed. Sounds pretty awesome to me.
The Groaning Cheese
We're not entirely sure how old this tradition in England is, but it dates back at least to the 17th century, when it's recorded in verse. The "groaning cheese" was something that happened in rural communities, and combined celebrating a new arrival with a big feast, which was common in a lot of historical societies, and a ritual to help bless the new infant.
The "cheese" itself might not have been a cheese at all, but a large circular cake. It certainly had to be sizable, though. The groaning of the title was a reference to the agonies of childbirth, but the best bit was yet to come: in certain bits of the country, partygoers, or the midwife, cut a massive hole in the center of the cheese for eating, and then passed the new infant through the hole to make sure it had luck in life. (Some regions also gave bits of the groaning cheese to unmarried women to give them husbands in the future.) Baby showers be damned, I want all the babies of my acquaintance to be threaded through gigantic cheese-holes.
The Paternity Cap
These days new fathers don't get much of a public presence. There's no "New Dad!" badge, no special regalia to mark that moment in a dude's life when he becomes a father, and that strikes me as rather sad. The Dutch in the 17th century knew far better. The celebrations in a household following the birth of a child included the father donning a special "paternity cap," which showed off his new status proudly in public (and also meant the house was temporarily exempt from a few taxes).
The cap wasn't just for public life, either. The man in his paternity cap presided over the necessity of feeding guests who came to visit his wife, including giving them kindermaalstuk, or child's cake. It was pretty normal for these cake-eating escapades to last far into the night, and the paternity cap was right at the center of it all.
Gloves On Doorknockers
How do modern women let people know they've popped out a sprog? Facebook? A cute post on Instagram? An email containing the new squishy face of the human being they've been cooking for months? Boring. The British Victorians had a codified social ritual for this, because they had a ritual for everything, and it's actually quite a charming one.
According to Judith Flanders in The Making Of Home, households that had just welcomed a new arrival and couldn't really be bothered going around spreading the news door-to-door (because babies can be kind of demanding) would use a shorthand signal: their doorknocker. They tied gloves to the door up until the nineteenth century to indicate a new birth to the neighbourhood. It certainly makes for a pretty Instagram post.