I was raised in a devoutly Catholic family. In all seasons and times of the year, we had altars throughout our home. My mom maintained one wall altar, which centered around a crucifix where our palm branches from Palm Sunday would be braided and hung. There was another wall altar of a print of Jesus embracing a figure of a young man. It was along side this print that my mom included photos of family members and friends who had passed. At Christmas we had a nativity display that was a seasonal altar. And each May, my mom, sister and I would create a “May Crowning” altar to celebrate Saint Mary who was also the namesake of my family’s home parish. Our May crowning altar was my favorite of the year and I loved to gather up spring flowers and other beautiful things to put on the altar which centered around our statue of Mary.
As I came of age and moved away from my family’s home, I discovered that many people, from a wide variety of faiths and traditions, also created and kept altars within their homes. With altars centered around a family’s shared faith or spiritual practice, or centered around any number of things that held great meaning for them all. The call to create altars in the spaces where we live, where we birth our babies and lay down to die, seems to come from a deep unconscious need within our collective psyche. There is no model to follow, there is no standard altar, though in viewing a variety of altars around the world, you will see themes that are common throughout humanity, such as altars to welcome birth, encourage love relationships, to worship with faith and devotion, and to honor death.
Early in my pregnancy, to honor this sacred time in our lives and to prepare our space for our upcoming homebirth, my birth altar began to take shape. The top shelf of a large bookcase in our living room was dedicated entirely to this. I didn’t place just anything on this altar, as it was not a piece of decoration for the room. It was a outward symbol of my own power to labor and birth my child into the world. I placed my most meaningful symbols of love, grace and mothering strength so that I could draw upon them all when the time came. I placed items that called to me from the natural world and gifts given to me by husband, and by the women in my life who wanted to bless my way ahead.
At the center I placed my treasured statue of Mary, who to me is the symbol of God’s perfect love for us, of God as our Divine Mother. Around her, I added items gifted to me by women friends who were all part of a traditional South Indian maternity ceremony that our dear Indian friend hosted for us. There were gifts of sweets and colorful fabric from this gathering, and each held such great memories of this ceremony that I shared with these treasured friends.
Upon the altar I also placed clean-burning candles to light as my labor began. One candle was a bee’s wax candle poured into the shape of an angel and another was a tall pillar enclosed in glass that I covered with beautiful paper. There were also nine unscented votives for soft lighting if my labor came during dark hours. And there was incense of frankincense and myrrh to light if scent was desired.
There were soft pink roses in bud vases that I placed on here, and on all the other altars throughout my home, just hours before my labor began. I also placed the many beautiful beads that were strung for me at my second blessingway and the written wishes from these same women. Reading these heartfelt wishes for my labor and birth still fills with me such deep gratitude for these friends. Many of whom of are now becoming mothers themselves and I now get to return the same love and good wishes to them.
After moving around our home throughout my labor, following that spontaneous flow, we eventually settled in our living room and our son was born under our birth altar. I can very clearly remember a moment after his birth, when I was leaning back into my husband’s arms, our son at my breast, our midwives tending to us, and looking up at my altar and feeling such tremendous gratitude for all that I had been asked of and all that I had been blessed with. We kept our altar intact, adding fresh flowers and gifts for our son, for over a year, until our family moved to our new home. Our altar became a family treasure and continued to offer beautiful reminders of what is important in birth and important too during that first precious year together.
Ask your heart if you would like celebrate your own pregnancy and birth by creating an altar within your home. If yours is a homebirth, you may want make it a large and include candles that may be lighted. If you plan to deliver in a hospital or center away from home, perhaps you may want a more mobile altar that you can include in your things that you bring with you. And while your altar will likely be very beautiful and hold many of your most precious items, I found it important to remember that a birth altar is not a piece of home decor, like a sculpture or a painting. Your birth altar should hold your most powerful symbols of love, strength and faith for these are the same qualities that you will draw upon in your labor. Include images and items that represent your deepest hopes and desires for your birth. Add what is uplifting and bolsters a deep sense of safety and confidence in yourself. Include gifts from those who love you and items that you may want to include in your labor, like chocolates, candles and incense.
I have seen birth altars that include inspired collages made by the mother. Another with a collection of photos of the maternal lineage and a grandmother’s wedding band. I have seen altars built upon windowsills, on shelves and tucked within a large potted plants that were displayed on table tops. I have also seen women who have beautifully painted one side of their belly and breasts casting and then created their birth altar within the open space made by their bellies. There are so many clever and creative ideas, but your own ideas will be the most beautiful and serve you the best. Don’t over think it, in fact, this is a time to follow your heart’s own inner guidance—it will serve you well again at your birth.
May you and your family’s way always be blessed.