Pardon Me, Do You Dunk, Pour or Sprinkle?

October 3, 2013    |    By +
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gifts-for-christeningWhen asked me to untangle the difference between christening and baptism, I was sure I knew the answer. A baptism, I thought, means a thorough dunking under some serious holy water, maybe even in a river. And a christening–I mean, just listen to the word–sounds like a genteel, but still consecrated, sprinkle. Turns out that I was a little bit right, but as with all things doctrinal, it’s not that simple. Baptism comes from an ancient Greek word that means “to immerse,” and everybody who is Christian and uses water to welcome members to the faith does it. (Some never use water; I’m looking at you, Unitarians.)

Really old Christian denominations, like the Eastern Orthodox Church, still practice full-immersion baptism, even on babies. Middle-aged denominations like Catholics, Anglicans, Amish and Lutherans, tend to go for affusion baptism, in which water is poured over the head of the person being baptized, or even aspersion baptism, which is the aforementioned sprinkle. A large percentage of these baptisms are done on babies, so pouring/sprinkling, rather than dunking, may be less scream-inducing.

Many younger American denominations, like Baptists, Anabaptists and Seventh Day Adventists, will only baptize those old enough to sincerely profess their faith, which leaves out anyone still in diapers. And what do you know, they have also returned to full-immersion baptism, which even denominations that regularly sprinkle or pour still consider a kind of “gold standard.”

Where does christening come in to all that? It turns out that christen is a traditional English word that dates back at least to the fifteenth century, where it appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s often used by laypeople to mean the part of a baptismal ceremony in which a person is given a name, and so is usually used in connection with the baptism and naming of a baby. The Church of England still uses “christening” as a word for the ceremony (Its website says, “Babies are ‘baptised’ during a christening service just as couples are ‘married’ during a wedding service.”), whereas its American counterpart, the Episcopal Church, only uses the word baptism officially. Got that?

If you’re invited to a child’s baptism or christening but aren’t a godparent, should you bring a gift? Stay tuned for an upcoming GiftRap on that very subject! In the meantime, check out for baptism and christening gift ideas.

Lavonne Leong lives with her husband and daughters in Honolulu, where she writes about arts, education, science, families, and yes, shopping. She’s the editor-at-large for San Francisco-based Red Bridge Press, and her first children’s book, Up in the Hawaiian Sky, is due out this month. She loves the thrill of the chase when stalking the perfect gift.


Which is which? Don’t worry, Grandma knows.



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Kathryn Drury Wagner is the senior manager of content at She was formerly the executive editor at Honolulu Magazine, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Shopping on Oahu. Her career has included staff positions at Country Living Gardener and Power & Motoryacht. Her latest book is "Hawaii's Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!"

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