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Cracking the godparent code

I am blessed to have many godchildren. Seven, in fact. I witnessed their baptisms, pray for them daily, and am either engaged in their religious instruction or ready to be in the case their parents need the assistance. Of all my vocations, being a godmother is one of my very favorite. My children have very special godparents who serve that role for them. This summer, we've had several readers submit stories about the way the media use the term godparent. In fact, the issue has been raised so much that I figured we had to go ahead and look at it.

One submission was this one from The Guardian:

Steven Spielberg's summer cruise around the coast of Sardinia in the company of his god-daughter Gwyneth Paltrow and friends has entered choppy waters after he fell foul of watchful Italian beachgoers, a vigilant coastguard and Italy's strict rules on having fun.

And here's a more recent piece from the Associated Press:

Amy Winehouse's 15-year-old goddaughter performed an outstanding set at the Big Chill music festival, mirroring her late mentor by closing her show with a cover of Winehouse's "Love Is a Losing Game."

Dionne Bromfield got teary-eyed when she performed the song, barely able to sing its last few words, though the crowd cheered her on.

"She was an amazing singer," Bromfield said. "She was not only my godmother, but she was my mentor and my boss as well."

Readers have asked about whether these terms have different uses in real life versus celebrity life.

Traditionally, "Godparent" is defined as "a person who stands sponsor to another at baptism." Encyclopedia Brittanica explains:

... One who stands surety for another in the rite of Christian baptism. In the modern baptism of an infant or child the godparent or godparents make profession of faith for the person being baptized (the godchild) and assume an obligation to serve as proxies for the parents if the parents either are unable or neglect to provide for the religious training of the child, in fulfillment of baptismal promises. In churches mandating a sponsor only one godparent is required; two (in most churches, of different sex) are permitted. Many Protestant denominations permit but do not require godparents to join the infant's natural parents as sponsors. In the Roman Catholic Church godparents must be of the Catholic faith.

OK. So Gwyneth Paltrow has said that she was raised by a Jewish father and Quaker mother and that it was a nice way to grow up. She's raising her children Jewish although her husband is from a Christian background. Steven Spielberg is Jewish. So I'm very curious what the context is for referring to him as her godfather.

Amy Winehouse was Jewish. I'm unsure about Dionne Bromfield's religion. She's been referred to as Winehouse's goddaughter for many years.

Do non-Christian religions ever use the term "Godparent"? It seems that there are a couple of roles in Judaism that could be translated as godparent. This is from Wikipedia, so take it for what it's worth, but here are some examples:

Santeria In the Yoruba religion Santería, godparents must have completed their santo or their Ifá. A person gets his Madrina and Yubona (co-godmother) or his Padrino and Yubon (co-godfather) or some santeros aside from his co-godparents may have an oluo (babalao, initiate of ifa) who consults him with an ekuele (divinating chain).

Judaism There are two roles in the Jewish circumcision ceremony that are sometimes translated as godparent. The sandek holds the baby boy while he is circumcised. Among Orthodox Ashkenazi, the kvater (or kvaterin if female) is the person who takes the child from his mother and carries him into the room in which the circumcision is performed. Kvater is etymologically derived from the German Gevatter ("godfather").

Chinese traditions Some Chinese communities do practice the custom of matching a child (the "god son/daughter") with a relative or family friend (who becomes the "god mother/father"). This practice is largely non-religious in nature, but commonly done to strengthen ties or to fulfill the wish of a childless adult to have a "son/daughter". In most circumstances, an auspicious day is selected during which a ceremony takes place, involving the god-child paying his/her respects to his new god-father/mother in the presence of relatives or friends.

OK. So Jews do have some roles that could translate as godparent but they are for circumcision sponsors, so that wouldn't explain the Paltrow-Spielberg situation. So what's going on here? Are we redefining the term? If so, what is this term that so clearly means "baptismal sponsor" supposed to mean when used in celebrity journalism? Can anyone explain it to the readers who have submitted variations on these examples?

Image via Wikipedia.

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