For most Christians who practice Catholicism having a child receive their first Holy Communion is a very big deal. Particularly if that child is a little girl. From a religious point of view it is just as important for boys, but for little girls it’s about the dress.
Traditionally, it is one of the three times in her life that a girl will be dressed in an expensive white gown. Sometimes this gown will be passed down from one generation to the other. More often than not, a new outfit will be purchased for that baby girl to wear at her christening. A few years later the gown will be for communion/confirmation, and as a woman, the center piece of the day is her wedding gown.
Three of the most memorable days of my life were, first being accompanied by my mother to try on wedding gowns, and choosing the perfect one. Then, many years later, and each in turn, accompanying my two daughters as they searched for and found their perfect wedding gown.
I don’t really remember my christening outfit, but I have seen pictures of it. Since I am of Greek and Italian ancestry I got to wear it twice. With all pomp and circumstance, I was baptized once in the Greek Orthodox Church, and again in the Roman Catholic Church. I guess they wanted to make sure it took. To make certain, I had two complete sets of Godparents. My christening outfit was a long white satin and embroidered gown. As I said, I’ve seen the picture of me in it and I don’t look too happy.
The second of my white dresses was topped by a heart-shaped head-piece and veil. My mother, I, and Jeannie, who was to sponsor me for confirmation and become yet another of my Godparents, walked up to third avenue and 120th Street to a children’s store. Together, we three, shopped for this grand attire. I had to try on several dresses and head pieces. It was the same ritual as when purchasing a wedding gown except I had much less to say about the style. All I knew was, this was an exciting time.
Boys and Girls who are to make their First Holy Communion and Confirmation (In those days you did both in the same day) were to study their Catechism book (10 commandments, prayers, words of Jesus Christ, rules of the Church), and the Missile (Explanation and prayers of the Mass in Latin and English). You then had to pass a test before you were permitted to join the other boys and girls making Communion and Confirmation.
My dress was lovely, with puff sleeves, tiny seed pearls, and two rows of tulle ruffles at the hem line that ended just mid knee.
A big party was planned at my house (the 6th floor apartment) to celebrate this special day. My mother and grandmother cooked all the food. Nick, the ice man, carried up two huge blocks of ice for the bathtub to keep the soda, beer, and wine chilled. All the relatives and friends of my parents were invited. My father even hired a photographer to take slides of the special event. You needed a unique projector to see them. It was hand-held, you slid in the negative and looked through two circles. I still have this viewfinder and slides.
The First Holy Communion procession took place early in the morning. The excited boys and girls lined up outside the church. Girls all wearing long or short communion dresses, boys in navy blue suits with white arm bands that would be changed to red for confirmation. We carried bouquets of flowers like miniature brides. Everyone was between seven and eight years old. Parents sat in the back pews and ooooo’d and aaaaaah’d when we paraded in.
After the Sacrament was administered we were taken downstairs to the church hall where the nuns scurried around in their black habits attaching red arm bows to the boys, and pinning long red ribbons to the front of the girls dresses. We were united with our individual sponsors’ (mine was Jeannie who was the daughter of our neighbor Jenny. They lived across the hall) and sent back up to the church to be confirmed and slapped by the visiting Bishop. (why he slapped you is another whole story and goes into Catholic doctrine.)
Jeannie whisked me away as soon as the ceremony was complete, and we were released. Being asked to be someone’s sponsor for confirmation was a great honor. My Godmother, who was about twenty-five years old at the time, dressed accordingly. She looked beautiful.
As a treat and to get me out of the house while it was being set up for the celebration, my new Godmother took me to the movies to see Hans Christian Anderson, with Danny Kaye. The colors were vivid. She also presented me with a beautiful gold Bulova watch. I still have it. It doesn’t run and the black silk corded rope band frayed a long time ago, but I doubt I will ever give it up.
On the way back from the movie, I fell and tore up my knee on the concrete sidewalk. I also ripped the bottom ruffle of my beautiful dress. Poor Jeannie was so upset. I don’t remember caring in the least. The day from beginning to end was one of the most special days of my childhood.
Even now when I come across a little girl in her Communion dress I smile knowing it is something she will never forget.