Emily Mae Boettcher poses in the same first Communion dress that her mother, Deanna, wore for her first Communion decades earlier. Wearing the simple heirloom dress last May, helped Emily and her family focus on the spiritual importance of the day, rather than losing focus and worrying about the material aspects of the day, according to Deanna Boettcher. (Submitted photo courtesy the Boettcher family)

Every once in a while, the dress in the back of the closet is given a long, nostalgic look when someone rummages through the attic looking for the crinoline slip or the prom dress or the formal winter coat, or simply rids the place of clothes that have outlived their usefulness. The “first Communion dress” is fondly exempt from that dispersal and dwells in the storage space a little longer – just in case.

As Emily Mae Boettcher prepared for her first Communion last May, her mother Deanna struggled with balancing the holiness of the day with the elaborate plans that seemed to trap most parents.

A generation ago, girls wore simple white dresses and boys wore blue suits. In some households, what used to be a small family gathering with a decorated sheet cake is now a big to-do that rivals many weddings. More and more, children parade through church in designer frocks, rhinestone tiaras, and, increasingly, tuxedos. Months before their child’s special day, the fancy white dresses and veils hang in the closet while parents scramble to book caterers, DJs, cakes, invitations, hairdressers and photographers.

From a simpler era

Deanna was touched, and a bit relieved, when her mother brought over her first Communion dress from an era when celebrations were a little simpler, and perhaps a bit more reverent.

“I suppose she was hoping it would be reused one day or at least be a nice keepsake for me,” said Deanna, a member of St. Mary Immaculate Conception Parish in Burlington.

She wondered if this dress, purchased so many years ago, would have a place in today’s celebrations. Would her daughter be receptive to wearing a dress that might not be the latest fashion, but held decades of memories and might perhaps be the start of another tradition?

After all, each of Deanna’s four children wore her baptismal gown, and she hoped this dress would be another way to share one of the happiest days of her life with her two daughters.

“She thought the dress was pretty and she really liked the sleeves because they were soft and sheer so she wouldn’t get hot,” said Deanna. “But she was a little apprehensive thinking she would be different from her friends.”

However, when younger sister Abigail, now 6, saw the dress, she loved it right away and thought it was pretty. Her reaction was enough to convince Emily to choose her mother’s dress over the two flower girl dresses she wore to weddings the previous year.

In deciding to share her dress with Emily, Deanna and her husband Jay impressed upon their daughter that it was the Eucharist that was most important – not the dress and not a lavish party.

“I never really felt any pressure from Emily, but other moms made a big deal out of first Communion,” said Deanna. “We didn’t want to lose sight from what really mattered. There are a lot of accessories in the stores, too, that make you think you should buy them, but just two months after the affair, I couldn’t even remember what they were, so it couldn’t have been that important.”

Instructors worry about creeping commercialization

Religion teachers and directors of religious education try hard to stress the importance of the day on which the 7- and 8-year-olds receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time.  But many worry about the creeping commercialization.

The church has no official guidelines on nonessentials, but asks that they be kept “simple enough so as not to distract from what is the most important meaning of that day,” children receiving our Lord in Communion, according to the 1996 sacramental guidelines for first Eucharist for the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

When Barbara Lebak became the director of religious education four years ago at St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Burlington, she and her pastor, Fr. Steve Amann, wanted to refocus the meaning of the sacrament, so they moved the celebration.

“We moved it to the scheduled parish Masses on Sunday instead of having a separate Mass just for the communicants,” she said. “Many of the parents were concerned that it would be less ‘special’ for the children and Father emphasized that the children’s relationship with Jesus and receiving him for the first time was what made the day a special event. We continually point this out in all of our contact with the parents.”

While Lebak tries to keep the celebration in perspective by giving simple first Communion prayer books and certificates to the children as reminders that Jesus is the best gift, she realizes that many parents cannot help but go overboard.

“We tell the parents about the need for simplicity, but sometimes the tradition of buying very fancy clothing, especially for the girls, is too tempting to resist,” she said.  “I think the boys are more prone to having borrowed suits than girls having borrowed dresses. The most opulent example I can think of was a $400 dress one girl wore. At least we can say that the dresses our children wear are modest in appearance, another point of emphasis at our parent meetings.”

Economy forces changes in celebrations

As Kenosha struggles with corporate shutdowns and high unemployment, a benefit to the faltering economy might be a refocusing on faith and the sacramental aspect of first Communion rather than the large party. As interim religious education coordinator at St. Therese of Liseux Parish, Carrie Scruggs has noticed that more parents at her parish are unable to afford religious education classes and aren’t planning major celebrations.

“Some parents are making payments for classes and some cannot afford to pay at all,” she said. “Times are very tough and some parents have opted to teach (religious education) in lieu of paying for classes. I got worried about these families when it came time to discuss first Communion.”

In a survey of parents, Scruggs offered to host a group celebration after the first Communion Mass, and is planning to implement a sharing plan to pass on clothing that older students no longer need.

“The first Communion clothing is often more expensive, so I wanted everyone to plan ahead and see if we could pass on clothing that other students have grown out of,” she said. “It is all confidential so no one will feel offended. I just think that we can modify this celebration – the boys don’t need suits; they can wear white shirts, a tie and dark pants. No one needs to spend $200 on an outfit that they will only use once or twice.”

A return to the traditional

While business has been down for some in the “Communion trade,” Julia Kilian, owner of B’Tween Friends, 2223 E. Capitol Drive, Shorewood, has not noticed significant change in the purchase of first Communion clothing. She said most parents will cut back in other areas to do what they can to make the day special for their children.

“In fact, a few years ago, the dresses were simpler and many girls didn’t want to wear a veil,” she said. “Now we are seeing more traditional, lacy dresses with veils. Parents are buying them because the older dresses are a bit outdated. I do think that the traditional clothing is a sign that our Catholic Church as a whole has reverted a bit more to the traditional aspects of our faith and we are seeing this in the sacraments as well.”

Despite the economy, Kilian explained that when times are tough, people become more conservative in their faith and tend to focus on sacramental celebrations.

“They realize that their faith is most important,” she said. “And first Communion seems to be holding more meaning to parents once again.”

Trend is to cut back on gifts

While they do not carry first Communion clothing, Li’l Friar Gift Shop, 622 W. Lincoln Ave., owned by the Basilica of St. Josephat, carries veils, ties and gifts.

“We are selling the same number of veils and ties, but I have noticed that people are cutting back on more expensive gifts,” said Melissa Rabe, store manager. “People are not coming in and buying Swarovski crystal rosaries, but they are buying less expensive rosaries. And instead of buying the pearlized covered prayer books, they are opting for plain ones.”

Despite the trend to spend less on gifts, Rabe has also noticed a return to a more traditional respect for the sacraments and both parents and grandparents are choosing statues, prayers books or other small tokens of the religious event.

“They may not be spending the amount of money but they are spending money on something with the right message,” she said.

The message was not lost on Emily Boettcher who beamed after receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus for the first time, and after her mom’s “antique” dress caught the eye of adults and children.

“Most people noticed Emily’s dress and thought it was great that she was wearing it,” said Deanna. “They couldn’t believe it was in such good condition and thought it was very sentimental. As I saw her up there and then saw a picture of me, it made me realize how tradition makes you feel closer to your family no matter how much time has passed.”