Why do we

Why do we Celebrate Birthdays?

Why do we Celebrate Birthdays?

A brief history of the birthday celebration

Image credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock.com

It would seem almost unthinkable to have a birthday celebration without cards, a cake and candles, presents, and the time-honoured “happy birthday” song. While it may seem that the traditions that make up the observation of a birthday have been around forever, they obviously all started somewhere. The time that birthdays began to be celebrated by people is a little ambiguous. However, most historians agree that the notion of the birthday probably started out in ancient Egypt.

A Godly Celebration

When pharaohs were crowned in the days of the early Egyptian empire they were elevated to a divine status. The day they were endorsed as a god was deemed much more important by society than the day they were born into the world. The Bible’s reference to Pharaoh’s birth-day (circa 3000 B.C.) is the earliest known mention of a birthday celebration. However, experts believe this is almost certainly referencing the subject’s coronation date. That is to say, their “birth” day as a god, rather than their actual birthday.

It is the Greeks we have to thank for all those birthday cakes and candles. It seems the Greeks liked the idea of celebrating their gods and goddesses birthdays, so took the notion from the Egyptians. In ancient Greece, it became common practice to offer moon-shaped cakes to the lunar goddess Artemis as a form of tribute. Someone then decided to add lit candles to the cake to replicate the radiance of the moon that was thought to illuminate her perceived beauty. The candles were also thought to symbolize a way of contacting the gods. It then became customary to blow them out, along with making a wish. This meant that the gods would be sure to receive your request.

A Mortal Affair

The whole notion of birthdays then passed from the Greeks to the Romans. It is thought that the Romans were the first civilization to celebrate the birthdays of mere mortals. Once the birthday idea was spawned, it soon became common practise to celebrate the birthdays of male friends and family members. The government then began to create public holidays to observe the birthdays of its most prominent citizens. Men celebrating their 50th birthday would receive a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and grated cheese. Unfortunately, women were going to have to wait a millennium, or so, for society to see their birthdays as a cause for celebration.

The very notion of the birthday celebration obviously had its roots in paganism. Thus, the Christian Church refused to recognise the concept of birthdays for several hundred years. However, sometime during the 4th century, the Church had a rethink when it decided to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. It was this event that initiated the idea of Christmas. The timing of Christmas was deliberately chosen so that it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. The idea of substituting an existing pagan celebration with a Christian one was a well-established practice by the Church. It was done in the hope of boosting convert numbers.

The Modern-day Celebration

By the 18th century, the idea of celebrating birthdays, especially that of children, had spread to almost every corner of the globe. In China, it became the tradition to particularly honour a child’s first birthday.  By the late 18th century, Germans were practising something close to the modern-day children’s birthday party. Children would receive a birthday cake complete with candles. One candle for each year that they had been alive, with one extra to represent the anticipation of living throughout the following year. Blowing out the candles and making a wish was also a part of the celebrations.

By the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was well underway. This saw rapid improvements to transport systems and the mechanisation of manufacturing processes. This meant that the price of goods, especially foodstuff, began to drop significantly. The birthday celebration, once the preserve of the wealthy, was now affordable to the masses. Mass-produced cakes went on sale for the first time. They were significantly cheaper than those produced by upmarket bakers. The act of giving hand-made birthday cards had been a custom in Europe since the 15th century. However, the mid-19th-century saw the beginning of the mass-produced card, making the gesture affordable to all.

The Birthday Song

And, finally the birthday song! In 1893, sisters Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill wrote a song they called, “Good Morning to All,”. It was intended that the song would be sung each day by their students before classes. However, the song proved highly popular, catching on throughout the whole of America, which gave rise to a number of variations. In 1924, Robert Coleman published a songbook that contained his play on the Hills’ song, changing the lyrics to a version that would quickly come to overshadow the original. Coleman’s song adaptation was the one we now all know today as “Happy Birthday to You”.

In the USA in 1933, the Birthday Song was the first-ever song sung as a singing telegram. Today, it is said to be the most frequent song sung in the world. Even in non-speaking English countries, the song is often recited at birthday parties in English.


Header image credit: rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com

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