Generation X and Religion | First Communions, Bar Mitzvahs, VBS

Chidren working on a VBS project, 1970s
From the Elgin County Archives | VBS in Elgin County, 1974

A few years ago, I had a couple of features on my blog called Virtual Sundays and Vintage Religion. After I posted a blog survey, a reader in Australia emailed me to say she really missed the Vintage Religion posts. They were kind of the religious version of Gen X nostalgia. So, as time permits, I’ll be reviving this blog feature. Enjoy!

Summer always reminds me of Vacation Bible School. Who didn’t love winning prizes for bringing friends or making paperweights out of baby food jars filled with glitter? I loved seeing adults dress up as Bible characters and sets created out of refrigerator boxes. The felt boards (sometimes called flannel boards), were always my favorite thing. I loved hearing Bible stories as each new felt character was added.

Felt Board Stories

Missionary using a felt board
Felt Board Stories | 1951 | Mennonite USA Archives

Here is a picture I came across on Flickr of an American missionary using a felt board to teach some children in Argentina about Moses and the burning bush. This was taken in 1951 and is part of the archives of the Mennonite Church USA. They’ve enabled the Blogger share function, but they’ve labeled the photo “all rights reserved.”

Go ahead and laugh. I did. There is something somewhat amusing about that felt bush. Obviously, some Bible stories lend themselves to felt boards more than others. Like, I bet there aren’t any felt characters with leprosy, and I bet nobody is selling a felt set of a woman being stoned for having five husbands. :O

I like felt boards so much, I bought one a few years ago for my kids along with characters from the story of Noah and the Ark. Etsy is a fabulous resource for all kinds of felt board stories. It’s also easy to make your own felt board. I came across this tutorial with templates for dress-up.

Who Are the 12 Disciples?

I love to search on Etsy for vintage religious items. This week I came across a set of hand-styled and hand-painted religious figures. It includes the original 12 disciples, half of whom I can never remember. They were John, Peter (Simon Peter), Matthew, Andrew, Thomas, Philip, Simon, Jude (Jude Thaddeus), Bartholomew, James the Greater, James the Less and Judas. Also included in the set is Matthias (who replaced Judas), Jesus and Paul the Apostle. This is such a cool find and rare collection. You can buy it for $50.


Religious figures including 12 disciples, Jesus and Paul the Apostle

Vintage Bar Mitzvah Photos

I love sourcing photos of Gen Xers at their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, First Communions and baptisms, etc. They can be hard to find, and when you do (usually on Flickr), they’re not available for sharing.

Jewish boy and his grandfather at 1980 Bar Mitzvah
Barry’s Bar Mitzvah, 1980 | via goldenbiceps on Flickr | Creative Commons License applies

Jewish boy celebrates 1980 Bar Mitzvah with friendsHere are a couple of great Bar Mitzvah photos taken in 1980. These are from the Flickr user goldenbicep and are made available through the Creative Commons License.

The Bar and Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ritual for Jewish youth. A boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah at age 12.

First Communion

Catholic children at their first communion 1970s
St. Ambrose Church, Berkeley, California | First Communion Ceremony, 1976 Photo made available through the Blogger share function on Flickr via jeneen_johnston.
Old First Communion photo from 1975
1975 via Library Studies Student

As a kid, I remember seeing pictures of communion dresses in the Sears, Montgomery Ward and JC Penney catalogs. I always wanted my mom to buy me one. They looked like wedding dresses for little girls, which, in essence they are. The dresses are white symbolizing both purity and that the child has become the Bride of Christ.Most of the First Communion dresses I see today fall just above the ankles, but when Gen Xers were growing up they were either really short or really long. Girls wore them with white leotards or tall white knee socks, and the veils were generally quite poofy.

Old First Communion photo from 1971
McKinley Archives, Flickr


Generation X and Religion

I’m fascinated by the religious experiences Gen Xers had in childhood, especially since religious affiliation among Generation X has reportedly declined. Based on a study by the Pew Forum for Religious Life 20 percent of Gen Xers claim no religious affiliation.  This is compared to 8 percent of Silent Generation members and 13 percent of Baby Boomers.What were your religious experiences in youth and how have they informed your adult life?


  1. says

    Fun topic! I’m a lifelong Lutheran, as is my husband and most everyone in our extended families. We were in church every week, in Sunday School, in VBS. The only thing we didn’t do was attend the Lutheran school at the church, opting instead for the public school in our town (as had been the case for my parents and their parents). After I was confirmed I helped out with Sunday School, and eventually headed off to a Lutheran college. After my undergrad years, I joined a new congregation (largely because I’d moved from Illinois to Colorado) and I played in the handbell choir, sang in the choir and helped with the Sunday School music program there.

    Unlike most people I know, I didn’t have the period in my 20s where I stopped going to church, nor did my husband. And now our kids are growing up with the same experience of church every week as completely normal too.

  2. says

    Jen, playing catch up again! Anyway, I also adored VBS, as did my childen. Now, my granchildren are enjoying VBS! And I had friends in college who shared photos of their First Communions and their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs! Wonderful family and friend times galore! Such wonderful parts of growing up in a loving, supportive faith community.

  3. says

    Summer does not make me think of bible school, but your photos did remind me of CCD classes for my First Communion – we definitely had felt boards!

  4. says

    No, I did not put in my blog. I used it as a grad school application essay. I keep thinking I’ll rework it because I was under a word limit with the original version and I didn’t get to say all I wanted to say. But again, it’s very much opposite of my parents’ beliefs andexperience, and I don’t think they’re able to accept that, so I haven’t attempted to put it out there.

  5. says

    @HEYRAY – Did you publish that on your blog? I’d like to read it. I can understand where you’re coming from. I don’t know how I emerged from it all. My dad gave everything to the church. His life was a living sacrifice and it was a very hard profession. It was not easy on our family, either. I could write a book…

    @ANTHONY SCOTT – I was just reading today in a new book, “Content Rules,” some information about the website, “Church Marketing Sucks.” It advocates church marketing in unconventional ways. Anyway, it made me remember something about “church growth.” Churches strive to get children very young because once they’re a tween, like you were, studies show it’s by and large “too late.” Of course, I think religion is far different than faith, and as far as I can see, does little to convince people of the love of God. In fact, it seems to do just the opposite! Thanks for commenting. jen

  6. says

    I did not enjoy the aspect of my childhood that was heavy with religious responsibility. It’s something I thought was unfair, the expectations placed on me as the child of a church leader. Now, neither my brother nor I are affiliated with any church as adults.
    I once wrote about my experience but it’s not something I’ve shared with anyone who knows me. I’m sure it would hit my parents hard to hear, so that’s the main reason I haven’t published it. I’m happy for people who’ve had nothing but positive experiences with their religious faiths, but it’s simply not my situation.

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