Let us elaborate on the subject of godparenthood as an institution for Christian children who receive baptism. We are not concerned here with the protection provided by one individual (the godfather) to another, which has obtained such a great media impact following the publication of the novel by Mario Puzzo and the film series directed by Francis Ford Coppola, though clearly the origins of the latter concept lie in its primal meaning.
In former times godparenthood created a spiritual link between sponsors and their godson or goddaughter, to the point of being an impediment to marriage. A godfather or a godmother (a single godparent was the norm in many localities in Navarre) was entitled to name the baptised infant and responsible for his or her Christian upbringing. In the eventuality of the death of the natural parents, spiritual parents were expected to substitute them and become their godchild’s tutors. Since the Vatican Council II (1962-1965) the role of godparents at the baptismal rite is secondary to that of the natural parents. Sponsors used to run with the expenses of the celebration, but now their task is limited to gift-giving on significant dates.
Azkue recorded the belief godparents have an important bearing on the child’s wellbeing. If the child did not grow healthy and strong, the godparents were said to not have breathed good life into him or her (hats ona ez zion eman, in Basque). According to this same author, a defective recitation of the Creed by the godfather at the christening service could inflict misfortune on the child.
Being selected to be a godparent to a child (besoetan hartu, literally “take into your arms”) has generally been considered an honour. It was not uncommon for family and dear ones to offer themselves for the undertaking. The privilege of being godparents to the first and second children was ordinarily granted to the grandparents, one paternal and one maternal. Those who served as best man and bridesmaid in the couple’s wedding, along with uncles and aunts, cousins and neighbours, would sponsor subsequent children. Since the mid-1960s the age norm has been reversed and younger godparents are sought. Christenings today are significantly less frequent and held collectively.
Curiously enough, some needy families would arrange for comfortably off candidates without descendants to stand as godparents. When a designated godparent could not be present in person at the ceremony, he or she might appoint a godparent by proxy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, families who had lost consecutive children avoided by custom the election of godparents. The first man and woman encountered on the way to the christening or the first pair to come out of church from the previous religious event were picked for the purpose. Much was left to chance, and the so-called child of fortune (benturako umea, in Basque) would, on occasion, be even given the name Ventura or Buenaventura, Spanish for “good fortune”.
Segundo Oar-Arteta – Etniker Bizkaia – Grupos Etniker Euskalerria
Translated by Jaione Bilbao – Language Department – Labayru Fundazioa
Reference for further information: Rites from Birth to Marriage, part of the Ethnographic Atlas of the Basque Country collection.