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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019
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Opinion: Milestone ceremonies provide an alternative for children not making their communion

A humanist alternative to the First Holy Communion means that non-Catholic kids don’t miss out on having a special day, writes Tony O’Donohoe.

Tony O'Donohoe

THE SOCIAL MEDIA chit-chat has begun, the excitement is building and before we know it, communion season will be upon us once again.

And while many families will proceed down the traditional route, a growing number will not.

For families of mixed religion or no religion, as well as families where parents were raised Catholic but who are no longer part of the faith, communion time poses something of a conundrum. 

In March 2017, following the revelations about the babies buried in unmarked graves in Tuam, we decided to withdraw as a family from the Catholic church. This meant, of course, also withdrawing our children from the sacraments including making their First Holy Communion.

We were very conscious that, just around the corner, our son’s classmates and friends would be partaking. We all know the drill: fancy outfits, a big family day out and, of course, the kids making off like bandits.

We were worried that our son Brandon would feel excluded, that he was missing out because of our decision. 

So we decided to organise our own celebration and ceremony. 

As chance would have it, we had recently watched an incredible celebrant in action – at a friend’s wedding. 

Eithne Dempsey is accredited by the Humanist Association of Ireland and when we contacted her she said she would be delighted to help us create a special ceremony for children not making their communion.

Having secured our celebrant, we then needed a suitable venue, and many phone calls later we booked the perfect place, the Finnstown Castle Hotel. The event management team loved the idea and also worked with us every step of the way.

We asked around among the parents of the kids our son’s class and we posted on parent’s groups on a few social media sites. Soon we had 12 children from 10 families signed up to take part in the milestone ceremony. 

(Our celebrant was also assisted by two ‘little helpers’ – younger siblings of the children participating in the ceremony. )

Most of the families involved did not know each other prior to becoming part of the project but they all had the same goal… to ensure that our children would have a special day of their own.

Prior to the ceremony, the children got together for a picnic and games and got to know each other. To celebrate their connection with nature they planted an Irish oak tree which was 8 years old – the same age as the children themselves. 

The big day arrived and we were in luck with the weather – it was bright and dry, slightly overcast but perfect for outdoor photos.

There were 140 people in attendance and the atmosphere was friendly and upbeat. We played songs from children’s movies playing in the background. 

The celebrant Eithne delivered an uplifting ceremony based on the theme of ‘we are all connected’. We aimed to celebrate the kids’ connection to their loved ones and the wider human family, as well as to nature and all living things.

Some of the children contributed to the ceremony by singing and reading poetry.

Each child had been involved in a personal project prior to the ceremony, some of which were impressive. One girl, Caila, had organised a bake sale to raise money to purchase a water filtration system for a family in Africa.  

We incorporated a ‘pouring of sand’ activity, which saw the children choose different coloured sands which they poured in layers into a large decorative glass vase.

One highlight of the ceremony was the ‘wish tree’. In the run-up to the big day, the children had prepared their wishes and the parents wrote letters to their children.

As part of the ceremony, the children wrote their wish for the future on a silver tag which they then put in a decorative ‘wish box’. Then the parents placed their letter to their child inside the wish box, and in turn, took their child’s wish for the future and hung it on the wish tree.

It was emotional stuff and brought parents and children together for the conclusion of our ceremony in a really moving way. 

After we took photos and had a bite to eat, we held a combined afters, for those families who wanted to stay on, with a DJ and children’s entertainer. This allowed the children an opportunity to invite their friends to join in the celebration. 

By creating our own celebration in place of communion, we went from parents who were worried that our decision to raise our son Brandon without religion would affect him negatively to parents who had witnessed our son having an absolute blast.

Back in school afterwards, he was also able to engage with the first communion children’s banter about their own big days. He didn’t feel he had been excluded or missed out.

It seems to me that we have cracked the communion conundrum. 

Another happy side effect of organising the ceremony was that we got to meet other amazing people who are also raising their kids in a non-religious way. 

The event became so much more than we had originally envisioned and the feedback from the other families was so good, that we decided to do it all again this year. 

So in May it’s all happening again – we have the same celebrant, venue and kids’ entertainer organised. The event is non-profit making and so it is a cost-effective alternative for families who want one. At the time of writing, we have a few spaces left for that event. 

We have also set up the Little Big Day Project to assist parents or schools who would like to organise similar events. 

If your child is not making their First Holy Communion, you too could organise a milestone ceremony in your area – its fun, rewarding and a chance to connect with other like-minded families. 

Most importantly your child will not feel excluded this May. Let’s celebrate our kids – no child in Ireland should miss out on having a special day. 

Tony O’Donohoe is a Secular Humanist and IT specialist based in Dublin. With his wife Sharon O’Donohoe he is the coordinator of the Little Big Day Project, which aims to organise and promote non-religious milestone ceremonies for children.

Email: littlebigdayproject@gmail.com

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Tony O'Donohoe

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