Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Hedalen Baptism

Hedalen Stave Church

Two months ago, I was sitting in the pews of the 12th century stave church where my great-grandfather Helge had been baptized and confirmed. His mother Barbro had been baptized, confirmed and married there. Her parents—baptized, confirmed, married and buried. 


I had been looking forward to this event since the time I started planning my Norwegian ancestor- hunting expedition. The group of people I was traveling with all had ancestors from the region called Valdres, and we had spent the week visiting each Valdres town—six in all—and its corresponding church: Vang, Oystre Slidre,Vestre Slidre, Etnedal, Nord Aurdal, and now the Hedalen church in Sor Aurdal. In each town the group members with ancestors there would say, “This is my home church.” I had been patient and polite through five visits to other people's churches. Now finally, in Hedalen, it was my turn to say, non-churchgoer that I am, “This is my home church.”

I felt particular pride in having the only stave church in Valdres to call my home church. Built in 1160, it is still standing. It had been altered, added on to to allow for the growing congregation, but there it still stood on its original site. It was the last church we went to and, as the visit fell on Sunday, we were invited to attend the service. And, as if that weren't exciting enough, there were to be two baptisms that day. This old agnostic was all agog anticipating the experience.

Two baby girls were brought to the center of the church where the baptismal font was located. They were accompanied by their entire families: parents, grandparents, god parents, siblings—all in their traditional regional costumes or “bunads”. The minister started in on the first infant, addressing her tenderly as the little girl was held in the familiar arms of a family member. Then came the moment when she was transferred to the minister's arms to be cradled for the next stage of the ritual. I braced myself for the inevitable outcry, but the baby simply looked interestedly into the face of this new person. There was commentary throughout, of which I understood not one word (well maybe “gud”), but I caught the gist.

Sometimes the minister addressed the whole family, sometimes the parents, sometimes the congregation at large. And then the time came when she looked directly at the baby and spoke lovingly to her. The baby studied her face, totally open to this novel experience. The minister removed the little white cap to reveal a shock of dark hair (yes, there are non-blondes who are sometimes referred to as Black Norwegians) and the dousing began. Still no objection from the baptizee—she and the minister held each others' gaze throughout. Then the minister triumphantly held the infant aloft, facing her outward toward the assembled witnesses. I'm sure her words told them, “Here! This baby is now in your keeping—you are her community, her protection, her family.” While everyone beamed, the baby girl was handed over to her godmother who looked to be about twelve years old.

And then the whole process began with baby #2 and I got to experience the wonderful ritual all over again—this time knowing what to expect, anticipating my favorite parts, memorizing the looks that passed between minister and babe. The second subject was as cooperative as the first and all ended happily, with the exception of a meltdown on the part of a two-year-old sibling who had had enough of standing around in uncomfortable clothing. An exuberant procession of both families down the center aisle, accompanied by the jubilant ringing of church bells, had me thinking wistfully that there definitely were perks to being a Lutheran.

Detail of Door

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