“Happy birthday to you!” The history of birthdays and the traditions thereafter

By Hayley White

Reading time: 14 minutes

There was nothing more exciting than celebrating your birthday as a kid. All the presents and having your friends come over and play – and not to mention the cake! But gradually, as you get older, the excitement starts to fade and soon leaves you thinking that it’s just another day. When did the celebration of our birthdays first begin?

The origins of birthdays are a bit of a question mark because there was way of knowing when birthdays occurred until calendars were established. Historians know that ancient peoples celebrated birthdays, but not quite in the same way we do today. In pagan Greek cultures, it was thought that people were born with a spirit inside them – some say these were evil spirits. They believed that every year, on a man’s birthday, these evil spirits would come back to haunt them. So, the person would be surrounded by a circle of people to protect them from the evil eye, and they would loudly sing and dance to drive away the evil spirits. Gift-giving was not customary back then, rather, people would offer good wishes and pure intentions (Redlich, 2020).

By Hayley White

Reading time: 14 minutes

There was nothing more exciting than celebrating your birthday as a kid. All the presents and having your friends come over and play – and not to mention the cake! But gradually, as you get older, the excitement starts to fade and soon leaves you thinking that it’s just another day. When did the celebration of our birthdays first begin?

The origins of birthdays are a bit of a question mark because there was way of knowing when birthdays occurred until calendars were established. Historians know that ancient peoples celebrated birthdays, but not quite in the same way we do today. In pagan Greek cultures, it was thought that people were born with a spirit inside them – some say these were evil spirits. They believed that every year, on a man’s birthday, these evil spirits would come back to haunt them. So, the person would be surrounded by a circle of people to protect them from the evil eye, and they would loudly sing and dance to drive away the evil spirits. Gift-giving was not customary back then, rather, people would offer good wishes and pure intentions (Redlich, 2020).

Every month, Greeks would also celebrate the birthdays of certain Mount Olympus gods. For example, it is said that Artemis was born on the 6th of May. These annual birthdays were sacred and were the focal point of deity festivals throughout Greek history. Food, drink, treasure, and gold were offered to these gods and people begged them to protect Greece.

Birthday cakes and candles were said to originate from this time, since the Greeks would offer moon cakes to goddess of the moon Artemis for her birthday, putting candles on top to make them shine like the full moon.

When rulers and extraordinary people started to think they were god-like, they began to have personal birthday celebrations; for example, Plato shared a birthday with Apollo so, after his death, people began to honour him each year (Mikalson, 2015). But regular commoner birthdays were a lot less significant. Aside from the initial celebration of the birth of a child with congratulatory visits and presents from family and friends, annual birthdays did not really exist.

In the ancient to late Roman era, birthdays were family holidays and typically celebrated in a massive pagan religious ceremony. The Romans believed every man was born with a Genius and every woman was born with a Juno. These are described by Redlich (2020) as a spiritual clone and alter-ego – a personal shadow and guardian, born with each person and living parallel with them until death. The yearly celebrations were less for the individual and more for their spiritual alter-ego and it is to the Genius or Juno that people gave offerings of cake, wine, and incense in a small private ceremony at the family altar (Redlich, 2020; Shoham, 2021). As the oldest man at the head of the household, the paterfamilias’ birthday was particularly celebrated because his Genius was thought to be the protector of the entire family. These celebrations continued into the end of the 4th century, after which Juno seemed to disappear and the people who still followed Genius became more centred around astrology, literature, cosmology, and higher education (Nitzsche, 1975 as cited in Shoham, 2021).

Early Christians initially looked at birthdays as a pagan tradition to be avoided at all costs. Early Christian men and women were extremely humble and modest and did not consider their birth to be so important that it was worth celebrating. In Catholicism, birth dates were only remembered by their proximity to a saint’s feast day, if at all. In general, though, birthdays were associated with self-worship and were considered a sin of pride. As a result, few people celebrated birthdays unless they were of noble birth or royalty. Instead of birthdays, early Christians and Catholics favoured other holidays like the birth of Christ. These kinds of popular holidays were put in place to stamp out and override pagan traditions, but even so, these celebrations kept the idea of a birthday alive. Some pagan traditions also endured and continued to influence the construction of birthday celebrations today.

The ‘birthday’ began to reintroduce itself in Europe around the Renaissance. This was when Catholicism was swapped for Protestantism and did away with what Shoham (2021) calls the “cult of sainthood” (p. 83). It was sometime during the 16th century that people started to recognise childhood as a formative period warranting special attention.

Birthdays are acknowledged in various ways in different cultures. Some African cultures subscribe to having initiation ceremonies instead of birthdays. Once the children reach a certain age, they are taught the laws of the tribe, including beliefs, customs, songs, and dances. Young boys from the Maasai tribe have two different stages of initiation. Firstly, the boys leave their parents’ house, paint their bodies white, and receive warrior training for about three months. In the second stage, which may take years, the young warriors grow their hair longer and live in a manyatta, a village where they practise hunting in the wild. Once initiated, they get married and run a herd of cattle. The girl’s initiation takes place from the ages of 14-15 when they learn about the duties of marriage and how to care for babies (Redlich, 2020).

In other areas of Africa, birthdays are somewhat similar to Western celebrations. In Nigeria, the ages of 1, 5, 10, and 15 are thought of as special events and have mass celebrations with over 100 guests are held. Special birthday meals are served with lamb and a traditional rice dish called jollof. In Sudan, birthdays are mostly celebrated in large cities where it is customary to drink karakokday, a birthday drink made of hibiscus flowers. It is also customary to give the birthday person silver coins. In south Africa, the parents give their child a key on their 21st birthday to symbolise that they are old enough and ready to open the door to their future. In Egypt, the first birthday is always celebrated with song and dance as well as party decorations made of fruit and flowers to celebrate long life and growth.

In south and central America, some girls in Latin cultures have a quinceañera: a major rite of passage for their 15th birthday. It symbolises a girl’s entrance into womanhood and traditionally shows her purity and readiness for marriage. During their quinceañera, girls are known as damas, and boys are called chambelanes. The girl dances the waltz with her father and 14 other boys, one for every year of her life. The party contains a religious ceremony where the girl lights her parents’ candles, and her parents light their parents’ candles to symbolise the power and importance of family relationships.

In Argentina and Brazil, the birthday person gets a pull on their earlobe in honour of each year of their lives. In Mexico, Cuba, and Panama, the main custom is to fill a piñata with sweets and hang it from the ceiling for the blindfolded birthday child to hit until it bursts.

In Jamaica, the birthday person is wrapped in flour while people sing and dance to reggae, and in Aruba, kids take candy to school for their friends and teachers. Every teacher who receives a candy gives the birthday person a gift – like a pencil, eraser, or postcard – in return. The child also gets to wear their own clothes, rather than a uniform.

The Jewish culture has a celebration known as the bar mitzvah (for boys) or bat mitzvah (for girls). Jewish people never traditionally celebrated their birthdays but still retained the date so boys could throw a bar mitzvah on their 13th birthday and girls could throw their bat mitzvah on their 12th. At these coming-of-age ceremonies boys and girls are officially labelled adults and able to make their own decisions, as well as decide how to practise Judaism. Their 18th birthday is also important because that is when they can get married. When they turn 20, a person is at a crossroads for their future and so sages come to determine their path. Their following birthday milestones are 30-years-old for strength; 40-years-old for wisdom; 50-years-old for advice; 60-years-old for entering the world of old age and wisdom; 70-years-old for becoming elderly; and 80-years-old for the spiritual bravery that it took to be able to live such a long life (Redlich, 2020).

 

The Japanese consider the third, fifth, and seventh birthdays to be the greatest importance. A special religious festival is celebrated every year on November 15th for all girls turning three and seven and all boys turning five. During the festival, known as Schichi-Go-San, parents and children pray and give thanks for everything they have been blessed with.

In China, the birthday person pays respect to their parents and receives money as a gift. Chinese also have a ritual that celebrates not only who and what children are, but also their hopes around what they will be. Noodles are central to Chinese celebrations because they symbolise long life and longevity.

In Korea, a first birthday party is thrown and a table set up with food and four important items: a pencil, ruler, wire, and money. Whatever item the child picks predicts their future: an excellent student, good at handicrafts, long life, or financial wealth. On their 61st birthday, Koreans have a ceremony called Hwangap that symbolises longevity and the person moving into old age.

The Vietnamese do not celebrate or acknowledge the exact day they were born. Every Tết (Vietnamese new year), the baby turns one no matter when they were born that year. On the morning of Tết, the adults congratulate the baby and give them a red envelope that has lucky money inside.

In India and Nepal, the birthday child gets up at dawn and puts on brand new clothes. They then kneel and touch their parents’ feet as a sign of respect, and visit a shrine where the family pray and the child is blessed. At school, the birthday child wears bright, colourful dress and gives chocolates to their classmates. In Nepal, it is customary to put a mixture of yoghurt and paint on the birthday child’s forehead for good luck.

Another interesting little tidbit of information is that the “Happy Birthday” song was created by two teachers in America in 1893 as a welcoming song for their students. Around 1912, it gradually morphed into the favoured song we know now! Throughout history, birthdays struggled to get a solid foothold. From the Greeks, who only saw it as a day to celebrate the spirits, to the Christians who tried to wipe it out altogether, birthdays had a bit of a hazy start. Slowly but surely, it eventually transformed into one of the most loved celebrations in every person’s life, all around the world.

 

Sources: 1. Birthday – Abstract. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics 2. The Concept of Birthday- A Theoretical, Historical, and Social Overview- in Judaism and Other Cultures. Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 3. It is about time: Birthdays as modern rites of temporality. Time & Society 4. Virginitas: An essay in the history of a medieval ideal, Time & Society

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