Boňa (Baptism)

boňa f. sg./pl. (Ind.): christening, baptism.

boňa f. sg./pl. (Ind.) christening, baptism. In Roma society, a christening is one of the most important ceremonies. It symbolises the acceptance of the child from "aver/oka svetos" ("that/other world") into the world of people. Until a child is baptised, many destructive otherworldly forces personified as, for example, a bosorka or the man of fire (Jagalo manuš) have power over him. They can replace the child with an evil, ugly, noisy freak.

Until the baptism, the mother is supposed to stay by her child. She may not leave him alone and unattended. As a protection against evil forces, some iron object – a knife or scissors – is put under the child's head. This custom is also practiced in India: Iron protects a newborn against evil spirits (bhút). Combs are also frequently used for protection.

Some ceremonies may also be performed by elected Roma (e.g., bijav). The fundamental, important part of a christening, though, requires a "professional" – and that would be a rašaj (a cleric, a clergyman, a parish priest). Since, in India, Roma belonged to castes of musicians, blacksmiths, tradesmen, etc., for important social ceremonies they used the services of members of those castes with the appropriate traditional profession ("dharma"). These might even have been brahmans, members of the priestly caste, the highest class ("varna"). After their departure from India, the Roma lost their Indian priests and, in the lands where they found themselves, the best they could do was to use the services of the local church officials.

The kirvo/kirvi (godfather/godmother) plays an important role in christenings. First of all, godparenthood obliges the godparent to protect and support his godson/ goddaughter for all his life. At the same time, godparenthood establishes a feeling of solidarity between the godfather and all of the godchild's fameľija. Godparents should protect this relationship to prevent conflict – and so special "intergodparent" rules of behaviour were added: In Servika-Roma society, for example, godparents must use the polite form of address with the godchild's family even if, before the christening, they used the familiar form with each other.

Servika Roma often chose "their" peasant woman or "their" farmer as godparents. That way, they strengthened the paternalistic relationship of the Gadže to "their Gypsies". On the other hand, we have not recorded any cases of Roma being godparents to Gadže children.

The godfather, or the godmother, goes to church with the godchild (krestňatkos) and holds the child during the christening. (The words "ľikerlas les/la" ["s/he held him/her"] express that a bond has been established between the child and his/her godparent.) In the meantime, the family complete the preparations for the festivities. The guests bring gifts or put money into swaddling clothes for the newborn child. The value of the gift and the amount of money are a matter of prestige and so everyone tries to give as much as possible. The contributions of the invitees make up for the expenses of the party. It sometimes happens that less well-off parents or poorer guests invited to the christening prefer to borrow money to prevent people from gossiping and causing them shame (ladž) for not celebrating a boňa as required by tradition.

Each guest gives a gift to the parents, bows over the child and pronounces a blessing for the child's future life. The formula begins by asking God to give ("mi del o Del") – what are considered the most important things in life: good health, happiness, money, many children, a long life, "te anel la dake lačha bora" ("a good daughter-in-law to be brought to the mother"), etc.

As with other important ceremonies celebrating so-called rites of passage – milestones that mark the passing through the stages of human life - christening, wedding, funeral – various symbolic transactions take place. The most widespread is the custom of putting into the child's little hand or his swaddling clothes or near his swaddling clothes an object symbolising his future role in life. For a boy, most important would be his vocation; for a girl it would be to become a good housekeeper, mother, wife. In musical families, they would put a violin bow into the baby's hand; In blacksmiths' families, next to the swaddling clothes they would put some blacksmith's instrument – a hammer or pliers, etc. They would put a cooking spoon into a girl's swaddling clothes.

Another not very widespread, but interesting, custom is lifting the child from the floor to a table. This custom is still kept in some localities around Svidník. The father places the child on the ground. While he raises the baby and places him on a table, he pronounces the phrase: "Kaj tuke opre te džal" (lit. "May you rise"). People should not forget where they arose from, and they should remain modest and humble. Thus, with God's blessing, they may rise to something higher and better.

The christening (boňa) and the funeral are the two most important rituals because they accompany people from one world to the other.

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Burgenland (Austria), 1918-1939
Prislop (Romania), 2000