During seventh grade, Nicholas Paholak was invited to many a Jewish friend's bar mitzvah, spurring his Catholic family to learn more about Judaism. "It was very unfamiliar but I'm very open to my children educating themselves about any religion," says his mother, Grace.
The Paholaks, of suburban Detroit, aren't alone. With communities becoming more diverse and interfaith marriages more common, the chances of being invited to an unfamiliar religious ceremony have increased, sparking more than a few etiquette questions. Learning about the traditions of other religions makes attending these events more meaningful and fun, especially for children, says Cindy Post Senning, coauthor of The Guide to Good Manners for Kids (HarperCollins, 2004).
"Things are more frightening when we don't know what to expect," says Senning. "If you're able to reduce the anxiety, you'll enjoy the event more because you're not always worried about what's happening next. It gives you more self-confidence."
Children have a particularly important place at birth and coming-of-age ceremonies such as baptisms or bar mitzvahs. To help kids enjoy the experience more fully, check out these interfaith etiquette guidelines.
Do your homework. You'll find numerous religious references online and at your local library. Read them or ask a friend of that faith for information on how long the service is, what's involved, and what to wear. "Don't be afraid to ask," says Senning. "It's always okay to call and say 'I haven't been to a bar mitzvah in this community. Do people bring gifts or cash?'" Hosts can help. Just as a good guest asks questions, a good host offers background information. "Anything that makes your guests more comfortable," says Senning.
Denise Swartz, of Des Moines, Iowa, included information with invitations she sent to non-Jewish guests of her daughter Sarah's bat mitzvah. "I did it so everyone would know what to expect," she says.
To help her husband's Lutheran relatives feel included at her daughter's upcoming bat mitzvah, Marjorie Deschner, of suburban Detroit, is inviting them to light a candle during the ceremony and asking the rabbi to offer welcoming remarks to people of other faiths.
Balance respect with comfort. During a religious service of another faith, guests aren't always expected to participate but should behave respectfully, says Senning. This generally means standing when others stand or bowing your head during a prayer you might not recite. "You don't have to kneel and pray if you're not of that faith. You can sit quietly," says Senning. The same is true for any practices interfaith guests don't participate in, such as communion, for example.
Prepare your children. Offer kids etiquette tips, especially if they will attend without you. Tell them you expect them "to act respectfully in anyone's house of worship, that it isn't play time," says Senning.
Use the event as a learning opportunity. It's good to expose kids to things that are a little different. It leads to tolerance and understanding, says Senning.
Here's a sampling of what occurs during some religious birth and coming-of-age celebrations.
Baptism: This Christian rite welcomes a newborn into the religious community. Water is poured over the infant's forehead or the baby is immersed in a baptismal font. Some denominations wait until a child is older. Gifts of all types are acceptable.
Bris: This Jewish rite of circumcision signifies a newborn boy's relationship with God and his heritage. During a brief ceremony, the child also receives his Hebrew name. A casual meal is served afterward. Guests may give a small gift.
First Communion: This Christian rite welcomes a 7-year-old into the religious community as a fuller participant. For the first time, the child receives Holy Communion, a sacrament that involves consecrated bread and wine representing Christ's body and presence. First communion is observed by Catholics and some Protestants. Sometimes guests are invited to a celebration but not the service. A small gift may be given, often a religious item.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A bar mitzvah (for boys) or bat mitzvah (for girls) occurs at age 12 or 13. It marks membership in the Jewish community following years of religious education. The young person leads part of a Saturday service, in English and Hebrew. Guests attend the service, a temple reception, and often a private party. Common gifts are keepsakes, money, or a charitable donation.
Confirmation: This is when teenage kids renew the promises made at baptism. They're anointed with oil by a bishop, a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Jews, confirmation is a religious school graduation in which students lead all or part of the service. A small gift may be given.
Aqiqah: This Muslim ritual (pronounced "Akhee-kah") involves shaving off a newborn's hair to signify a new phase of life outside the womb. It is performed on the seventh or 21st day after birth. The family celebrates with relatives and friends at a feast that gives thanks to Allah for the gift of a child. A meal featuring goat or lamb is served. The feast is usually held in a mosque's social hall and includes a prayer to bless the child with good health, happiness, and protection from evil influences or physical harm. Guests typically bring a small gift for the child.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, August 2004.