Finding an alternative to the altar during communion season

As schools reopen after the Easter break, many classrooms will be consumed with last-minute communion preparation. But what about the kids who won’t be participating? Susan O’Shea has advice for parents

For thousands of Irish children, and their extended family and friends, May means communion fever.

Up and down the country, sporting and other activities are put on hold as the four Saturdays in the month are devoted to white dresses, bouncy castles, cards full of cash, food, drink (lashings of it in many cases) – and, of course, a few hours of quickly forgotten religion.

But what about those families whose children won’t be partaking in communion but are forced to attend Catholic schools because there is no other choice available locally?

It’s a tricky path to navigate. On the one hand your child risks exclusion by being the only one, or one of a small handful, not at the altar that day with all the attendant fuss. On the other hand, if they aren’t making communion, what’s to celebrate? Here are some suggestions on how best to deal with the May madness.

Role-playing

Most Catholic schools will offer children who are not making their Communion a ‘role’ on the day, should parents want them included.

This can vary from singing in the choir, to handing out the Mass booklets, to sitting with their classmates but not taking the sacrament.

They can also attend the refreshments back in the school hall. As children not taking communion are still involved in the preparations in the run-up to the big day, they will be familiar with what happens and having a role will make the rehearsals and hymn-learning a lot less tedious.

The difficulty with this option is that atheist or agnostic parents, or those who have turned back on the Church because of recent scandals, may find it anathema to have their child involved in any way.

Say yes to the dress

A bit of honesty here. For many parents and children, Communion day is all about the dress.

If you have a daughter who fears missing out because of the dress, then buy her a new frock.

Let her go as dazzly as she wants, and that way she can be included in the whole ‘what are you wearing’ conversation that drags on for weeks.

The daughter of a friend of mine picked a super sparkly number from Next, wore it to the Church, and was a source of envy among her classmates who ‘had to wear boring white’.

Party on

For most children, apart from the wads of cash, the highlight of the day is the party and the bouncy castle. There is nothing to stop you from holding your own non-communion party. It may be nigh impossible to get a bouncy castle unless you booked one in September, and, of course, nearly all of your son or daughter’s classmates won’t be available to come, but invite cousins and friends over.

Another option is to attend the party being held by a classmate. In fairness, most people will offer the non-communion child an invite, but do you want your child to feel they are gate-crashing on someone else’s big day?

An alternative party idea is to host a humanist ceremony, where like-minded parents and children mark the day in a non-traditional way. The Co Kildare-based ‘My Little Big Day’ ceremony is one such initiative and saw at least 12 like-minded families come together for a day of strictly non-religious celebration for their children last year, with a secular ceremony, followed by a meal, DJ and children’s entertainer in a local hotel.

The families limited the cost by splitting the bill between them.

All about me

Ask your child what would be their perfect day and plan it (trips to the moon, or Disneyland aside). My son picked bowling, quasar, followed by a trip to a fancy burger joint, where he was in seventh heaven. My daughter said swimming, so we took her to the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin, where she had hours of fun. It meant they both had something to talk about when they returned to school, and I kept reminding them that they didn’t have to utter a prayer in return.

Give a gift

Considering many second-class pupils now get a phone to ‘celebrate’ their communion (I kid you not!), and the average communicant gets €558, it’s important your child gets something on the day.

You don’t have to spend a fortune, put some thought into it and make it something they will cherish. A Swatch watch with their favourite colour strap, a box set of books from their favourite author, a telescope or something to stimulate their interest in science (which suffers in second-class thanks to all that devotion to religion).

Get the hell out of dodge

Taking your annual holiday at the same time as the communion has a number of distinct advantages. Firstly, little or no actual schoolwork is done in the week preceding the event, what with preparations and excitement, so your child is not missing out educationally.

As it’s May and not yet peak season, you should get a good deal on flights and accommodation. The average spend on a First Communion is now €860 (Ulster Bank Survey 2018), which should help pay towards your trip away.

The downside is that any other children in the family, especially older ones, will also have to miss school (though I wouldn’t anticipate howls of protest), and if summer sun is your thing you may be limited in terms of flights and destination options.

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