Of the birth of birthdays

birthday history

A distinctive day of the year for all, whether or not we choose to hold it in special relevance, a birthday is one of the most universal celebration of the very human existence. As that particular day of the year on which we were born many or few years or just a year ago, birthdays are the cue to our existence which is why they are always special, irrespective of the pedestal on which we choose to stand them, with a wearing out of the charm associated with that day as the years and therefore the ages begin to increasingly dawn upon us. But despite all such experiences of a decline in the charms of what the sweet melody singing of a Happy Birthday To You! delivered to us throughout our early years of carefree fun along the beauty of the world, the fact remains that birthdays will always continue to come and go as a special day at least, if not a very special occasion in its essence of endowing the world with a human as unique and as special as all others.

This essence rested in the premises of birthdays did not take long for the socially intelligent species of the humans to realise and soon enough, early enough humans as well were celebrating the yearly occasion commemorating individual days of birth. The tradition can be traced back to the Egyptians, who being the trendsetters that they always have been in a wide range of arenas pertaining to the development of human lifestyle find mention in the Bible as the first ever ‘organiser’ of born days. The reference alludes to the coronation of an Egyptian Pharaoh sometime in the 3000 BCE, celebrating the birth of the king as a God after his crowning as the ultimate power even among the elites. This link to the divine while reminiscing the all important occasion of birth was deemed necessary to invoke also by the Greeks who believed that each individual was looked over by a spirit on their day of birth and from which ensued therefore the birth of also a mystic connection. No wonder that with such leanings along the lines of the spiritual, it were the Greeks who took to celebrating their gods and goddesses through offerings of cakes, from which perhaps the tradition of the birthday cake came to be. The candles on the cake was also the novel ‘invention’ of the Greeks who would offer their lunar goddess Artemis moon shaped cakes lit up by the glow of numerous candles to recreate the radiant beauty of what the moon and therefore their beloved deity encompassed.

The backstory to the birthday candles can be seen in another light of interpretation as well. Pertaining still to an understanding of the Greeks is the probability that candles came to gleam around birthday celebrations as a way to ward out the evil spirits that were thought to be welcomed by such days of major change. The light of the candles thus came to symbolise a dispelling of the darkness ushered in by all such evils, marking therefore also the celebration of birthdays as more a ritual in protection. Also symbolic were these candles and the blowing out of them as a sending of a prayer to the gods to protect the person from evil, even as good cheers, thoughts, and wishes as well as gifts were also showered abundantly on the birthday baby by near and dear ones in a hope to shield them from all harm.

Hailing thus very certainly from Pagan traditions was this celebration of life on earth that was therefore widely denounced within the ambits of Christianity. That indeed is somewhat ironic, since the birth of Jesus Christ is one of the most global and popular of birthday celebrations in the world today. Initiated sometime in the 4th century, this very remarkable celebration of a birthday considerably did away with the Christian notion of humans not being worthy of celebration since all of us are born with what they call the ‘original sin’. Christ however, being the Lord himself was indeed worthy of adulation, gifting us therefore a day that sees mass celebrations as the frenzied yet revered occasion of Christmas every 25th of December.

Beyond the Egyptians and the Greeks and much before the Christians had their way, it has been the Roman interpretation of birthday celebrations that emerged as more universal a rejoical in the birth of every individual on earth. Diverging from the prevalent norm of only according religious figures or at least prominently powerful personalities the distinction of reveling in the good fortunes of their existence were the folks of ancient Rome who came to celebrate birthdays the way we do today. As friends and families and near and dear ones were celebrated in Rome on their special day for the special place they held in the lives of everyone concerning them, birthdays emerged to be more commonplace affairs of the masses. In fact so important it was for the Romans to recognise this passing of yet another year along the expanse of the earth that the attaining of the significant milestone of a 50 years on earth saw celebrations with a special cake baked with wheat flour, olive oil, grated cheese, and honey. But they still faltered though on one very significant aspect- it literally were just the Ro’man’s and not the women there who could dwell in this warmth of a candlelit celebration commemorating their day of arrival on this earth.

The anti women stance regarding the celebration of birthdays might have been quite appalling but that did not come to see a change till quite long, the 12th century to be precise. Despite sidelining however the women folk in the celebration of their being on earth unlike today, birthdays have never been ever celebrated without its very prime component of the cake. And while the Greeks and the Romans had indeed accorded the cake a special standing in their birthday culture of early times, the modern day phenomenon of the birthday cake did not come to be till the 15th century when German bakers came up for single layered birthday cakes, much like what was prevalent in wedding celebrations of the times. Improving and evolving from thereon has been this all important necessity of the birthday cake that came into special focus sometime during the 17th century. Taking on its contemporary form of today with multiple layers and icing and decorations, the birthday cake indeed became the star of the celebrations though the exquisite allure of them meant that cutting the cake was mostly a luxury reserved for the rich of those times. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution that ensued during the following couple of centuries that made birthday cakes affordable enough to place it on tables as the quintessential requirement of the birthday parties of all and sundry.

From thereon, from the 18th and the 19th centuries that is, birthday celebrations have been far more common a phenomena that it had ever been, holding still the warmth and charm and cheer of them for indeed birthdays continue to be special in their reminder of the beauty of the lives we have been blessed with. The earliest known modern day birthday celebrations took place in Germany as Kinderfest where young children were celebrated for their another year of life with cakes and candles and wishes even as gifts came to be prominent elements of such occasions later on. The quintessential birthday song came to stick around also pretty much the same time, during the closing decade of the 1800s and achieved popularity in the following century, providing also therefore a cue whereby the flashy wishing of Happy Birthday began to be markedly displayed on the birthday cake as well.

Today, birthdays and in fact all celebrations are incomplete not just without a cake but also a range of lip smacking dishes to feast through this special day of commemoration and counting of the blessings. Even then though there are certain traditional foods customarily eaten by the birthday person on their yearly rendezvous with the day of their birth. Most popular and intriguing of them all would be the longevity noodles of China that are meant to be slurped up as long as possible as the way to a long life! Not just the noodles, the Chinese variant of the birthday cake too dwell on this premise of endowing longevity upon the individual. Shou bao or longevity peach steamed buns are the traditional Chinese birthday cake relished by the guests as well as individually prepared portions of deliciousness. The ritual in Ghana treats the birthday baby to a hearty breakfast of oto on their special day. Another very popular food that dominates birthday proceedings in many part of the world but hails originally from Mexico is the pinata that is a tradition in itself seeing wide interpretation in different countries and cultures. Quite remarkable is the birthday tradition of Denmark where it is a cake man or cake woman, locally called the Kagemand or the Kagekone that is a very delightful way for children of celebrating their special day. In the Netherlands, it is a particular pie or tart called the Vlaai that makes for the must have traditional delicacy on every birthday observance. Diversive though is the fortune telling cake that does the round of birthday celebrations in England, very evidently steeped in the essence of birthdays being yet another step to the future.

An occasion of joy and celebration, of feasting and merriment, of experiencing gratitude and feeling blessed, and showered with loads of love and luck and gifts and presents, birthdays indeed are remarkably singular a day that can make us feel special. And despite their relevance, birthdays often tend to slip away from the echelons of coveted specialness with the passing tides of time. In fact, birthdays can even manifest as rather depressive experiences for some, making birthday depression a real issue to deal with. But that does not in any way make birthdays any less than they are, for ultimately it is only a reminder of the fact that life is worthy of celebration in its every aspect, each and every day and throughout.