Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Birthdays: A day filled with cake and questionable gifts.

As my own birthday is tomorrow, I decided that it would be a good idea to write about the history of birthdays! Where did the song come from? Why blow out candles? Why presents? Why celebrate getting older anyway? It was fun as a kid, but now it’s just a reminder of the inevitability of being old.

Birthdays were not always around, since for a long period of time we didn’t have calendars. People kind of took a stab at their birthday and what time of the year it was based on the stars and of course weather. Once calendars were in use, people started to take more notice of their own day of birth. There were no parties though for the regular ol’ folk like you and me. History only gives us names of nobility and such celebrating birthdays with parties and fanfare. The consensus was that if you weren’t royalty, there was really no reason for anyone to remember your birthday.

Eventually, birthdays and celebrations became a mainstay for children, starting in Germany. The parties were called kinderfestes, kinder meaning children and feste meaning party. Though this name hasn’t stayed with us, a similar word has that came from the Germans, Kindergarten. The celebrations, like most at the time practiced by pagans, were done to ward off evil spirits. People believed that evil spirits targeted people on their birthdays and the only thing that could protect them was friends and family. Bringing gifts was another way of spreading cheer, which helped ward off evil spirits. I smell a scam here.

The birthday custom of lighting candles originated with people believing that the gods lived in the sky and by lighting candles and torches they were sending a signal or prayer to the gods so they could be answered. When you blow out the candles and make a wish this is another way of sending a signal and a message.

Birthdays have since lost the stigma of being about warding off evil spirits and more about celebrating a person’s transition into another year of their life. Birthdays are now celebrated around the world, each in a different way.

In America, we typically do the traditional birthday with cake and presents, but sing a specific song to go along with it. The Happy Birthday song was written by Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, though no one really paid much attention to it until the verse “Good morning to you!” was changed to “Happy Birthday to you!” Now the song is heard in every household. One place you will not here the song is at restaurants. You may have noticed while the people from Red Robin surround you and give you a free dessert that is much smaller than it should be, that they have their own dumb birthday song. Legally, no restaurant or business can legally sing the Happy Birthday song because that would be copyright infringement. The song surprisingly is not public domain and therefore has a copyright on it. So thanks to that, you get the “restaurant version.”

Some birthdays are special in the U.S., specifically a 16th birthday for a girl. This is of course known as a sweet 16 party. It’s sort of the equivalent to the official step into adulthood for girls. Or it’s just a huge party for spoiled girls whose parents will apparently buy them anything.

Other big birthdays are a person’s 18th birthday, which marks when a person can legally buy tobacco products, pornography items, and lotto tickets. This also the age at which people can vote and also have to sign up for conscription. 21 is another big one, marking when people are allowed to legally drink alcohol. In most cases, this is also the age at which people are allowed to gamble in casinos. This is different from casino to casino, as in some, you have to be at least 19.
25 is where you can rent a car and when your insurance goes down. I am very excited about this actually. Those payments are killing me!

From there, there aren’t any big birthdays besides the ones that are round numbers. You know it’s a big one when you get the obnoxious birthday cards that say things like “old”, “geezer”, and “over the hill.” When you see that, you are officially in trouble. That means your mid-life crisis is just around the corner.

Special birthdays or coming of age birthdays are different in other countries. Such as:

· Jewish boys become bar mitzvah on their 13th birthday. Jewish girls become bat mitzvah on their 12th birthday, or sometimes on their 13th birthday in Reform and Conservative Judaism.

· In Hispanic-American countries the quinceanera celebration traditionally marks a girl’s 15th birthday.

· In Indian Hindus, the 12th or 13th birthday is replaced with a grand “thread ceremony.” The child takes a blessed thread and wears it, symbolizing his coming of age.

· In the Philippines, they celebrate a debut on a girl’s 18th birthday, and a boy’s 21st birthday.

· In Asian countries that follow the Zodiac calendar, there is a tradition of celebrating the 60th birthday.

As for famous birthdays, many people celebrate what is perceived to be Jesus Christ’s birthday on December 25th, but it probably isn’t. The Queen of England’s birthday is known as Victoria Day. In the case of American birthdays for famous people, we basically just have Presidents Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Columbus Day does not mark Columbus’ birth, but the date he viewed Hispaniola from his ship.

If you happen to be one of the most unlucky people ever, you happen to have been born on February 29th. This, of course, is only a day in a leap year. That means that technically you are never going to get past your mid 20’s. This plot device is used in the musical “The Pirates of Penzance”, as the main character is made to stay a servant because he was born on the 29th and therefore is not really 21 and freed from his servitude. Yes, I do remember my days working in theater, give me a break.

Birthdays are extremely special to some people, and not at all to some. Some like to have people over and get gifts, while others don’t like getting older. Birthdays are a time of celebration, but also a reminder of our years on this earth. This year, make sure you tell a lot of people to come over and bring lots of presents to make sure that the evil spirits will stay away from you. It actually might work.

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