Why do we celebrate birthdays?

"There was a star danced, and under that was I born."

William Shakespeare


Birthdays are a time to celebrate, to party. Right? And here I am celebrating one of mine in France with friends and with sparklers, rather than candles.


My middle grandson - I have three from the two families - he is the younger half of one family and, uniquely in our family, a redhead. is about to have a birthday - his twelfth. It will probably annoy him about pointing out the red hair. After all it's just the colour of his hair and what's special about that? But there is something magically special about redheads somehow. The stars danced and glowed.


Anyway his parents have been planning celebrations - pizza and pasta somewhere near home with all the family. However in response to what he would like for a present, or indeed, presents, his mother reported that:


"his belief is that he didn't do anything in regards to being born so why do we give presents on birthdays, essentially why should he be rewarded for just growing?"


He is turning twelve. Just twelve. Such an adult concept really, and yet he has always been, shall I say thoughtful?, since very, very young. A tiny bit like his uncle of whom his brother once said - that "he has always been old mum!". Not that his father is unwise - just younger in heart perhaps. I think they were around the same age as Cruz is now. So maybe at the age of twelve one suddenly becomes wise - or at least questioning.


Anyway I found it to be impressive but also a tiny bit sad. However, it did give me pause for thought about birthdays.


Historically speaking, before ancient man was able to interpret the phases of the moon and therefore before any kind of calendar, however inaccurate, it would have been impossible to know when your birthday was. And maybe there are still remote societies that have the same problem. They may well have celebrations for the 'coming of age' but these could be tied to physical maturity rather than actual age - although I am guessing here.


"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" Satchel Paige


Now there's a thought. Particularly relevant to us oldies perhaps, who maybe live in our heads more than children. But then again perhaps not. Age seems to be important to the young does it not. There are perhaps more milestones when young.


It seems that the Egyptians were the first to recognise a birthday as something special, but to them the birthday applied only to the Pharaoh and only to the day when he became a Pharaoh and therefore a god. The articles I found did not mention whether the occasion was celebrated each year or whether it was just when the notion of birthday as something to celebrate, or at least mark, arrived.


The next reference seems to be to the Greeks, and the Goddess Artemis, whom amongst her duties was Goddess of the Moon. From Artemis come the candles on the cake because cakes were made with candles upon them as offerings to her:

"The lit candles on the cake represented the glow of the moon, and the smoke from the candles carried their prayers and wishes to the Gods who lived in the skies." Prowflowers


So that's why you make a wish when you blow out the candles as it will be blown upwards to the gods. Capricious beings that they were. Not all wishes are granted.


Moreover at the time of birth:


"everyone had a protective spirit or demon present at their birth. This same spirit formed a mystic relationship with the person and continued to watch over them during their lifetime. By celebrating the day you were born, you recognize the closeness of this spirit. This also supports the idea that birthday celebrations were originally events to create protection."


The protection was needed because of the presence of demons as well as good spirits, and this led to noisy things like all that shouting and singing. My own grandchildren have introduced their own tradition - somewhat depressing for those who are old - of clapping once and counting loudly, for every year of the person's birthday. Hence - 81 claps for David recently. It took a while and was very noisy. The demons must have been well and truly driven away.

The Romans celebrated the births of the rich and the powerful but not woman - whose birthdays were not celebrated until the 12th century. Which is odd because without them there would be no birthday.


The Christians also took some time to celebrate birthdays - even Christmas as the birth of Christ - because of the association with all those spirits and demons. Very pagan. But in the end they gave in and the Catholics even have name days as well as birthdays - a double celebration. Your own birth and that of your associated saint.


It seems to be the Germans in the eighteenth century who introduced the notion of a candle for every year on a cake for birthdays: "plus another to symbolize the hope of living for at least one more year." Initially just for the children. The candle was to represent the light of life.


The other tradition - initially Pagan, but later converted to a Christian thing, was the belief that when you were born spirits gathered around you - good and bad ones. And the lovely quote from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing illustrates that. Mind you it is taken a bit out of context. there is more:


"Don Pedro: … to be merry best becomes you, for out o’ question, you were born in a merry hour.

Beatrice: No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born."


Which does indeed show that birthdays are sometimes tinged with sorrow - much more in times gone by of course - because of the travail of giving birth. But for the mother it is also a time of great joy. The two days that I gave birth to my two sons were perhaps the happiest days of my life. Such unbelievable joy. And such a miracle in your arms at last after all the months of wondering what he or she would be like. We didn't know back then of course, and bets were apparently laid by the surgeons and nurses. On each of their birthdays I think back to those two magical days in my life.


So yes maybe it's a birthday should really be the mother's celebration - of having safely survived giving birth and the total joy and wonder of welcoming a new life.


But no we should celebrate that new life too. Yes it's a day like any other. Yes you didn't ask to be born. But it's a marker of progressing through life. A time to ponder on where you are, where you have been and where you are going. We should do this every now and then and a birthday is as good a time as any to remind us that we should. It's also a safe time to do it because you are usually with the ones you love - whoever that might be at any particular time in your life. And if life is not good in any particular year, then it's a time to try to find the good things that are still there - there's always something - even if it's just cake. This is my birthday in times of COVID, so it had to be outside in the park - in the middle of winter - but such a happy day in so many ways - not least because of the beautiful cake made by the granddaughters and their total satisfaction with the result. There must have been good spirits around when it was my birthday, even though it was in the middle of a world war, for every birthday since then has been a day of joy. Yes I believe it has. Even if it was just one happy day in a period of teenage gloom or middle-aged angst.


Presents? Yes there should be presents. Because it's a day on which to feel special. We don't always feel special - inevitably - so why not indulge yourself in for once feeling special? We all say thank you on to the birthday person - thank you for being here. For making our lives that much richer - especially true of one's children and grandchildren. In the case of parents it's a thank you for your life. Celebrate. And maybe even take a party girl's advice:


"The way I see it, you should live everyday like its your birthday." Paris Hilton


Should my grandson be rewarded for just growing? Well two things. One he is not being rewarded, he is being - hopefully - made to feel special. And he is also being thanked for being here and for making our lives fuller. He's not just growing. He is living.


"Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!" Dr. Seuss

Happy birthday on the 25th Cruz.

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