Our thoughts have turned towards Pip’s christening this summer. Rather than debating the ins and outs of if and when and how and why and where to baptise, I thought I’d investigate another tradition based around a less holy liquid: wetting the baby’s head.
It’s a phrase I’d been aware of for a while, but I really started thinking about what it meant a few years ago when we ran into Ant and Dec in the local Indian restaurant in my parents’ town.
Yes, that was the sound of not one but two names being dropped! I eventually got the courage to approach them and we had a brief conversation. They were so friendly! I even have photographic evidence: me stood between them looking extremely pleased, and tall. Mr McPartlin has connections to that area because of where his wife is from, so they were in town to wet the head of one of their local friend’s babies. From what we could gather, this meant a group of lads going out and making lots and lots of toasts to the new father.
According to the Urban Dictionary, wetting the baby’s head means “to celebrate the birth of a baby with a drink of alcohol, or more usually an excuse for a drinking spree.” Wikipedia also uses it as a typical example of social drinking, where friends get together to celebrate something.
The origins of the tradition appear to be linked with the baby’s real baptism, and according to sources cited by the fascinating Wordwizard, it has been around since the 1870s. It is also related to the verb “to wet”, which has meant “to drink” since at least the 17th century. In its first recorded context it was used to celebrate a military commission; the example in Wordwizard is (circa 1687) “He was as Drunk as a Chaplain of the Army upon WETTING his Commission.” Obviously the idea isn’t that you drink the baby’s head, more that you drink in honour of the baby’s head being christened. As for the first instance of the phrase, this is a couple of hundred years later: “‘We’ll WET LITTLE MABEL’S HEAD with some of it.’ ‘What mean you?’ . . . ‘Why my wife was brought to bed last night of a little lass as we are going to call Mabel, and I’d like us to drink to her health. That’s what we call WETTING A CHILD’S HEAD in these parts.’”—The Old Factory: a Lancashire story by W. Westall (1885).
Enough etymology for the moment. What does it all mean for us now, and in relation to Pip’s baptism, should we also organise something more “secular” for our friends – or is it more of a male-only thing? Certainly the tradition seems to be the father and his male friends only, which I think is slightly sexist (admittedly perhaps quite realistic too, as the mother is usually pretty knackered for the first few months and if breastfeeding isn’t supposed to drink much anyway… although they wouldn’t have known that in 1870! Either way, I doubt there were many girls’ nights out in 1870).
I haven’t actually heard of any of our contemporaries going out to wet their baby’s head, but maybe it is more a thing that our friends in the North do – Ant and Dec, for example, and the Lancashire father above (that’s what they do “in these parts”.)
One to think about anyway. I do know one thing for sure: if Mr Cath gets to go out and have his fun with the lads, I will insist on my own night off!
And hey – if it’s good enough for Prince William*, it’s good enough for us.
*A Prince William lookalike, but still.