Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

A novelty from tradition

Western-style baby showers are increasingly replacing more traditional ways of celebrating the birth of a newborn baby in Egypt, writes Omneya Yousry

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptians have their own way of celebrating a newborn baby in a ceremony called sebou. However, today as a result of imitating the traditions of Western countries new habits have emerged, including celebrating bachelors’ parties, open air weddings, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s parties and so on, and Western-style baby showers have become increasingly fashionable events.
A baby shower is primarily a party thrown by expectant or new parents. These receive gifts for their newborn or expected baby during the party from friends and family. In some countries, such as the United States, a baby shower is usually celebrated before the baby has arrived, whereas in others, like Australia and some parts of Europe, the shower is not celebrated before the baby is born.
Traditionally, a shower is supposed to help the new parents collect baby clothes and other things for their newborn child. Guests present them with gift baskets containing such useful items. There is a long history of baby showers, and the traditions associated with them vary by country and social setting. Traditionally, only women were meant to attend baby showers, and the mother-to-be was the centre of attention. Now, with many families getting smaller, men have also started attending the showers.
In Egypt, the celebration of sebou has long been the equivalent of the baby shower, and it is one of the country’s oldest and most cherished celebrations. It is held one week after the baby’s birth, the word sebou being derived from the Arabic word for week. For convenience’s sake, however, many parents today celebrate sebou a couple of weeks, or even a month, after their child’s birth.
Although sebou is the Egyptian equivalent of the Western pre-birth baby shower, it would be unthinkable for Egyptians to celebrate a birth before it actually happened, since it would be presumptuous to assume that a pregnancy would in all cases come to term. The sebou also used to be the occasion for naming newborn children, circumcising boys, Christians and Muslims alike, and piercing the ears of girls. Nowadays, these practices usually take place separately from the celebration, often before mother and baby leave the hospital where the child was born.
An important component of the celebration is food. Families who can afford to arrange for the slaughter of an animal, usually a lamb, will do so, this being referred to as the aqiqah and being thought to safeguard the child’s life. Moghat, a thick and sugary beverage made from a powdered fibre and heavy with ghee and sesame, is also served. It is believed to be beneficial to nursing mothers.
Sarah Mohsen, an Egyptian mother-to-be, thinks that baby showers in Egypt now stand somewhere in between the traditional sebou and the Western ceremony, where there have long been no standard habits. “Every baby shower I attend has its own theme and sequence,” she commented. “For me, the ceremonies are delightful nowadays, what with the lovely decorations, cakes and balloons.” Mohsen does not care for moghat and the loud voices in the baby’s ears that are associated with the traditional sebou, and she intends to have a baby shower when her own baby is born, though one taking place a week after the birth in line with tradition.
“Nowadays, new mothers and mothers-to-be seek our help to arrange for the baby’s big day, especially because of the sometimes reduced number of family members and the consequently lesser assistance,” explained Hisham Said, owner of the Cakes Land Facebook group that organises special events. Said said that baby showers along western lines had started to become popular in Egypt over the past six years or so, maybe more among the upper social classes. “Everyone wants to join the club now, not only to celebrate the special event, but also to join in presenting a prestigious image to the world,” he said.
According to Said, the cost of a baby shower is usually higher than a regular sebou. “The cake itself can cost around LE500. There are also other items, like renting a hall in case the event is not held at home, decorations, creative sweets and candies, a DJ and sound system, the catering, balloons and little gifts,” he said. A baby shower list, which includes all the items the parents would like for their baby, is another feature of the event. This list is sent to a retailer, where guests go in order to buy the gifts for the baby shower. This saves time and effort, and it helps to avoid repeated or useless gifts, Said added.
Sebou has traditionally been the occasion for family and friends to see the newborn baby. Nowadays, it is also a convenient alternative for parents who may not feel up to receiving visitors at the hospital. It is also a way to have everyone visit at the same time. The visitors bring gifts for the baby, with gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets being typical gifts for baby girls, and amulets, written prayer rolls placed in gold or silver cases, being given to both boys and girls. These are pinned to the babies’ clothes or placed in their beds to provide protection against bad luck or sickness.
Pendants or pins decorated with turquoise stones — blue is a lucky colour — or representing Quranic verses or crucifixes are also common baby gifts. More practical baby items may also be given, and close relatives often give gifts of money. The new mother is not left out and also receives her share of gifts, usually jewellery. In accordance with Egyptian etiquette, gifts are only opened after the guests have left.
The actual ceremony begins with the guests scattering salt on the mother and around the house to ward off the evil eye. The baby, bathed and dressed in a brand new outfit, is then placed in a specially decorated container and taken on a tour of the family home, followed by a procession of family members, mainly children, carrying lit candles and chanting songs welcoming the baby to the world. The container in which the newborn is carried is often a large sieve, or colander, filled with nuts, corn and other seeds.
Once the tour is over, the “baby-shaking” begins. The baby, still in its brightly decorated colander, is gently shaken, or rolled, while the women form a circle around it, singing. This baby-shaking dates back to the Pharaonic era and is thought to rid the baby of evil spirits. The grandparents in particular are supposed to shake the sieve while reciting chants instructing the baby to obey its parents and family throughout its life. The mother must then step over the baby seven times without touching it, while the older women sing and make as much noise as possible, beating mortars and pestles, saucepans, and anything else that makes a racket. The noise is meant to clear evil spirits and prepare the baby for life in a sometimes loud and hostile world.
Towards the end of the ceremony and after the meal, each guest is given a small white cloth bag, made of silk for those who can afford it, filled with nougat, coloured crystallised sugar called sukkar nabat and gold and silver coloured coins.
Today, most of the customs described above are observed in a spirit of fun. Some well-to-do urban families have even begun to organise their sebous, or baby showers, in public venues such as hotels, amusement parks, or even at the neighbourhood McDonald’s. However, an element of superstition continues to lurk underneath, and the sentiments behind the celebrations remain the same, with most families feeling that not throwing a sebou might somehow bring misfortune to the baby.
Special Facebook pages like Welcome Baby have been created to help parents to arrange their baby showers. “Various activities have become standard for any baby shower,” said Sally Ismail, owner of the page. “Two years ago when I started planning for baby showers, the occasion was driven by tradition. Today, it is more usual for the event to differ from what our ancestors were used to. I try to arrange something that is joyful and accords with the parents’ taste.”

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