10 Things About Birthday Celebrations

My eldest son recently turned seven years old. We don’t usually do big birthday parties, but we do like to take weekend trips to fun (and generally educational) places. Last year his obsession with dinosaurs began in earnest, so we took a day trip to a museum where he could see fossils and learn more about the types of dinosaurs discovered in our region. He loved it. But as you can imagine, the pandemic prevented us from continuing that tradition this year.

Sure, some places are open. No, we aren’t in lockdown at the moment. We are all healthy (knock on wood). But it just didn’t seem prudent. The fact that we were even able to make that decision based on practicality and not financially instability is something I recognize as a huge privilege in the uncertainty of 2020. I am grateful for that.

Luckily, my son had a great time anyway. Knowing there was only so much we could really do, he was over the moon at what we pulled off. I made him a dinosaur shaped cake, we took him to the local Lego specialty store (we were all in our masks) and let him pick out a new set–it was dinosaur related, and we took him to a restaurant to sit outside on the patio and let him order some of his favorite foods. He was all smiles and laughter the whole time. He didn’t seem some big birthday tradition of museums, zoos, or aquariums. He just wanted to have fun with his family.

I’ve been pondering that. I know it sounds like we go over the top for birthdays. And maybe we do. But I have found that it is easier and cheaper to take a day trip to a museum a couple of hours away than it is to prepare and host a room full of children. Even so, we make a big deal out of it.

Growing up, my family didn’t make a gargantuan deal out of a birthday. Maybe we had a party. Or maybe we went out to dinner. There were always gifts, to be sure, and there was no lack of love. But since my birthday was very close to a major holiday, a lot of the time if there was a party, it wasn’t for me. It just happened to take place on my birthday. It never bothered me. In fact, I never thought all that much about it except when I joked about how big some of the parties were. “Look at this place. These people really went all out for my birthday!” “These people” of course being people I probably had only met a handful of times, if that, and were acquaintances my parents knew. It might not have been for me, but those parties were often pretty fun and certainly on a bigger scale than any one event has any right to be. On more than one occasion, I got to ride in a limo or even a private plane on my birthday at someone else’s expense. I didn’t care it wasn’t specifically for me, it was cool. But my husband grew up in a family where birthdays are a big deal. He very fondly remembers birthday traditions in his childhood and wanted to pass that along to our children. We agreed to do so and I have no regrets. I find it’s more fun to celebrate their birthdays than it is to celebrate my own.

With so many birthday traditions in every culture being affected by the global pandemic, it got me thinking about where some of our traditions originated. Obviously traditions can vary from family to family, and certainly from culture to culture, but everything starts somewhere. Research target fully locked, I began combing through sources to find the answers and found a few interesting* snippets along the way.

*Interesting is in the eye of the beholder. I’m a nerd who likes history and random trivia so take my evaluation of the aforementioned snippets with a grain of salt.

And so we have it. 10 Things about Birthday Celebrations:

  1. Most sources cite Ancient Egypt as the first observed birthday celebrations. Pharaohs celebrated their coronation dates as their birthday because it was thought that when a person became a pharaoh, they were reborn as a deity. It was more of a sacred observance than anything and no mere mortal celebrated their own birthday.
  2. Historians believe the tradition of candles on a birthday cake stems from the Greeks. Like the Egyptians, they celebrated the birthdays of deities, not mortals. To honor the birthday of the goddess Artemis, it was common to make a moon shaped cake with a candle in it.
  3. The Ancient Romans are credited with taking the tradition of a celebrating a deity’s birthday and expanding it to the common man. Man, of course, is the key word there. In Rome, *only* men celebrated their birthdays (the first celebration of a woman’s birthday in the Western World that we have record of isn’t until the 12th century).
  4. A set of slabs made of “wooden leaf fragments” from 100 A.D., prepared by Claudia Severa, are believed to be the first birthday invitations. She prepared them for her husband, Roman Commander Aelius Brocchus. Discovered in Northern England, the invitations are part of the collection of Vindolanda Tablets that were unearthed in the 1970s. The invitations are thought to be the oldest surviving writing in Latin by a woman.
  5. Evidence of gift giving is also found in the Roman tradition. However, it was not guests who brought gifts to the birthday boy. The man being celebrated was expected to provide gifts to his guests. The gifts were meant to represent his thankfulness to his friends and family that he did not have to live his life in isolation (especially in largely agrarian areas where people lived great distances from each other).
  6. The “Happy Birthday” song is actually a rip-off. The tune was written by sisters and Kentucky school teachers Mildred and Patty Hill in 1893. They wrote it as a song to start of the school day. “Good Morning to All” was the original song. Patty wanted a song easy enough for her youngest students to be able to sing and remember. Mildred was a gifted pianist and composed the music. The newer lyrics pertaining to a birthday were first published in 1912 and in the 1930s a copyright was filed by The Summy Company. Years later that copyright would be challenged first by the Hill sisters and then their estate. They won, but had to split the royalties with the company. The copyright was challenged again in the late 1980s after another company bought up The Summy Company and increased royalties on the song. Eventually the decision was that the copyright really only ever applied to a specific piano arrangement of the tune, never the words, and that it should have expired anyway. The song is now in the public domain in the US and UK.
  7. The concept of the birthday cake as we know it today can be traced by to the early 1700s in Germany. Children, both male and female, celebrated their birthdays with “kinderfeste”. Instead of sweet bread, German bakers began making sweet cakes for such occasions. Unfortunately, at that time the ingredients it took to make a sweet cake with sweet icing were still fairly astronomical in price so only the rich could afford such a luxury. That wouldn’t change until the Industrial Revolution.
  8. The Chinese birthday tradition of “longevity noodles” dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). I had never heard of this before, but it sounds pretty delicious. Golden Egg Noodles are consumed and the longer the noodles, the longer the person’s lifespan will be–never, ever cut someone’s longevity noodles. I am given to understand that this is also a common dish at Chinese funerals to celebrate the deceased’s long life.
  9. There are cultures and religions that still refuse to celebrate birthdays. Early Christianity associated the celebration of birthdays (apart from the coming of age celebration of a bar mitzvah that many early Christians still celebrated) with pagans. It was sinful to celebrate one’s earthly birth because each person is born a sinner. This could be tied to why saints are celebrated on the day of their death (their birth into heaven) instead of the birthday (their birth into sin and a sinful world). In any case, sometime around the 4th century, the church began annually celebrating the birthday of Jesus* and it quickly lead to the celebration of everyone’s birthday.
    *Since the actual birthday of Jesus was not specifically mentioned in the Bible, it is unknown. In fact, most evidence suggests it is much more plausible that he was born in late summer or early fall. However, choosing to celebrate his birthday near Hannukah and also near Saturnalia was thought to make it easier for new converts to adjust to the different celebrations of Christianity.
    **I give this information without judgement. I am a Christian and do not see historical accuracy as a threat to my beliefs, nor do I see the efforts of the early church in this matter as inherently awful. Moreover, it is not my place to judge anyone’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. If you do not know and love my God, why would I hold you to the same standard as those who claim to do so?
  10. Sir Henry Cole is credited with the invention of the Christmas card in 1843 in England because he had too many friends sending him Christmas letters thanks to the new “Penny Post” system and it was considered impolite not to respond. He had an artist draw up a picture that he described (a family around a dinner table flanked by renderings of them serving the poor) and then had a printer make him 1,000 copies with a generic message on each–“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” All Sir Cole had to do was write the recipient’s name and attach postage. This idea immediately took off and birthday cards (and subsequently other types of greeting cards such as “Get Well” cards) evolved from the idea shortly thereafter.

So while birthday celebrations are very personal–one family goes big, while another chooses a smaller celebration–our modern idea of a birthday celebration is really the result of several different ancient traditions (and a few more not so ancient ones) put into a blender. I find this interesting both from a trivia standpoint, but also from a worldbuilding one. In fiction, when we create our worlds and cultures, even if we don’t feature a character’s birthday, perhaps thinking about how their birthday would be celebrated might help us round out the character a bit more.

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