Am thinking about birthdays today — as in the anniversary of someone’s birth. Long ago in nomadic societies, people had a general idea of when a person was born, but it was tied more into the seasons and natural events, such as when certain plants bloomed, or about the time of the longest day of the year. How many years might be tracked, but even then it could depend on people’s memories. When people began measuring the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, with stationery rocks or landscapes, a form of calendar became possible, and specific dates could be pinpointed.
Why make note of a birthday? In the modern world there are legal reasons, such as when a person legally becomes an adult, when they must register for the military, when they can vote, when they can legally drink or smoke, when they get a driver’s license, when they can retire and collect Social Security, et cetera. There are also cultural coming of age celebrations, such as the bar mitzvah (Jewish), quinceanera (Hispanic), the thread ceremony (Hindu), and Coming of Age Day (Japan). In European-derived cultures young women (and sometimes men) had their debut, when they were considered old enough to begin the social interactions that eventually led to marriage. Having a debut is not as common in the United States as it was 50 years ago, but is still observed in the Philippines.
Should birthdays be celebrated? Most countries have at least one national holiday in celebration of someone’s birthday, whether it be a monarch, or living or deceased leader, or even a deceased religious leader (Christmas is one example). Some people (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses) do not celebrate those dates, because they do not believe birthdays should be celebrated.
If birthdays are celebrated, how should it be done? One source I read suggested celebrations on birthdays began in order to have crowds of people around you to protect you from evil spirits on a day when you were thought to be more vulnerable. Candles were lit, because they were thought to carry messages to the gods/goddesses for your protection and good fortune. Whatever the early reasons, cultures all over the world celebrate birthdays in a variety of ways. Here in the United States that usually involves some sort of food (often a birthday cake) and gifts/cards/good wishes being given to the birthday person (or animal, or organization, or whatever). This may be a very simple affair, with one or two close friends and/or immediate family, all the way to very lavish affairs that can go on for days. The most expensive celebration here in the U.S. ran about $7 million dollars, for David Bonderman’s 60th birthday in 2002. Worldwide, the Sultan of Brunei had a 50th birthday celebration in 1996 that cost $27.2 million dollars.
Obviously, birthday celebrations may be very public occasions. They may also be very private. If or how we celebrate our birthday depends on our culture, family of origin, socio-economic status, spiritual beliefs, personality, and other factors. Time of year can be important; I can remember friends’ classroom birthday parties during the school year, an option not possible for kids born during vacation periods. [As an aside, apparently here in the U.S. there are more birthdays in September and October. Use your imagination about why.]
If you want to celebrate your birthday. let people know. Either plan your own celebration, or get someone else to do it for you (following your instructions). If you would be delighted by a surprise party, tell people far in advance (such as a year or two), so they can actually make it a surprise. People can rarely read your mind, so if you do not say what you want, you probably will not get it. Do not assume your friends or loved ones will “just know.” This is your day or event, to celebrate or not. Make it as individual as you are. 🙂