Birthdays are a time for celebration. Throughout the world, birthdays hold a special meaning to both the celebrator and their family. Birthdays have become a universal tradition. It is the one celebration that remains constant; transcending race, religion, ethnicity and even geographical location. Yet, for such a well-regarded and highly esteemed celebration, the origin of birthdays is unclear.
The first birthday celebration, as the infancy of what we know a birthday to be today was the Romans. However, the acknowledgement of the birthday is a little hazy. Some people believe it was the Chinese that first saw fit to celebrate birthdays; others believe that the basis of the custom is referenced in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, there is one thing that is undeniable; the birthday celebration that we know today was pieced together like a patchwork quilt. The different traditions we take for granted were sewn together through patchwork traditions that survived generations and crossed oceans. Here are the ways that birthdays have accumulated traditions over the years to create the celebration we know today.
China’s Customs Included Marking Birthdays
The Chinese custom saw merit in marking the birthday, as well as the death day. Although, it wasn’t exactly celebrated. Instead, it was recorded to gauge mortality rates and life expecting. That is not a celebratory reason, though. So, most people do not consider this a true recognition of birthdays.
Egyptians Were the Party Animals
Considering Egyptians were always ready to party, this makes sense. However, again, their mortality was not their main concern. Their birthday celebration was only reserved for Pharaohs and it was held after the Pharaoh passed on. Egyptians considered this their Coronation, or the ‘birth’ of them becoming a god.
Romans Brought the Cake
Romans were the first civilization to hone in on the whole day of birth, annual celebration. However, this makes sense too, as Romans by all accounts loved life. They were less interested in dying than the Egyptians, so they wanted to make the most out of their time on earth.
Romans only celebrated men’s birthdays. Yet, that was a little more inclusive than only celebrating the birthdays of religious figures. Plus, they regarded living half a century as a big deal. So, when men turned fifty in Rome, they were gifted a large cake. This cake had the ingredients of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese.
Romans Also Splurged on the Gifts
Giving gifts, especially to a person on their birthday makes everyone involved feel good. Romans were known to like gift-giving (and receiving). So, they made gifts a tradition of their festivities.
Yet, there was also another reason that people gave gifts. This reason was that people believed there were evil spirits that were looking to do people harm on their birthday. Therefore, people gathered together to ward of the spirits and gave gifts as encouragements for the future. Although most people do not continue the superstitious reasoning behind gifts, they often give money, clothing, and food.
Germans Brought the Candles:
Germans are also responsible for the cake that we know now as the traditional birthday cake. However, their more revolutionary tradition was the birthday candles. Germans were the first to celebrate a child’s birthday by putting candles on a cake. The candles then signified light warding off darkness and the number of candles correlated with the child’s age. They were also the first to add a few extra candles for years to come. Or, as we refer to it now for good luck.
England Brought the Balloons
Where would a birthday party be without balloons? Most people could not imagine a birthday flying by without the colorful, playful decoration. However, balloons were not even invented until 1824. Michael Faraday made the first rubber balloon, with hopes of using it for a military advantage. They were used for this purpose, but it didn’t take long for people to start having fun with them instead.
The Birthday Song Was Only Added in the 1930s
The age of the “Happy Birthday” song seems strange, considering it has become synonymous with birthday celebrations worldwide. While the author of the actual lyrics to the song is unknown, the tune was created in 1893.
Patty and Mildred Hill wrote a song that was published in a book for schoolteachers called “Good Morning to All”. However, apparently the tune resonated more with the birthday crowd, instead of the morning-glories. This is because this melody did not become overly popular until it was placed in an Irving Berlin musical. Although, the lyrics were changed to reflect the song we know and love today.
Games at Birthday Parties Are a Globalized Effort
Parties have always been an excuse to dance, cut loose, play games and have fun. However, the games and shenanigans of birthday parties do not have a direct origin. While older generations would play Pass the Parcel or Blind Man’s Bluff, today’s games consist of Bounce Houses and even Pin the Tail on the Donkey. However, regardless of what was played, or how people entertained themselves, games have always been a staple of birthday parties. It seems inherent in our conscious as the correct thing to do. Parties should have food, friends, and entertainment. Apparently, some things never change.
To close, perhaps it is the need to celebrate another year of survival, or perhaps it is for sheer entertainment. Either way, the fortitude of the birthday celebration is undeniable. The human spirit resonates with the celebration of their birth on a level that most traditions could only dream of. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here, in the mysterious origin of birthdays. Birthdays teach us that even without all the answers, it’s still okay to enjoy the celebration.