Most of us take the celebration of birthdays completely for granted. Some people may opt to let their birthday pass quietly without any sort of fanfare, while others expect elaborate and expensive celebrations in their honor (and birthday weeks. If you’re over ten this is ridiculous. Get over your sorry self.)
Anyway, most people in the modern world are at least aware of the date they entered the world on, but this has not always been the case.
The only method our earliest ancestors had of tracking time was natural phenomena such as the changing of the seasons and the phases of the moon. The ancients certainly were aware of the fact that as years passed people grew older, but no-one felt compelled to formally mark these occasions until much later.
Once mankind became aware that natural occurrences were circular in nature, people began inventing ways to track these cycles. In time, calendars were devised to help keep all those reoccurring annual events and important dates, such as birthdays, in order.
It’s very likely that birthdays were first celebrated as a way to ward off evil spirits. It was a common Pagan belief that people were more susceptible to attacks from negative spirits during times of change and growth — such as becoming a year older. To keep the Birthday Boy or Girl from harm, their friends and family members would gather together in a joyous show of good vibes to repel any mean-spirited ghoulies hanging around.
The giving of gifts and the use of noisemakers were also weapons used to shoo away any unwanted spirits. Lighting candles and blowing them out while making a wish is a very old form of sympathetic magic, as these actions were believed to send a message to the gods, who would play a hand in granting the wish.
Birthdays have been celebrated for a very long time, but the tradition was initially limited to royalty and the nobility. The first birthdays that were documented were those of monarchs and other important members of the ruling class. The common folk wouldn’t even know the date of their birth much less have the means or the inclination to celebrate it.
The rich folks were the only ones worth keeping track of, so even if the rabble celebrated their birthdays no records of this have survived. Some scholars believe this fact is echoed by the tradition of wearing a birthday “crown” — it may harken back to a time when only crowned heads celebrated birthdays.
With the arrival of Christianity, birthday celebrations were actively discouraged because of their Pagan connotations. They had no qualms with co-opting Pagan holidays such as Yule (Christmas) and Samhain (Halloween), yet birthdays were completely forbidden.
A tradition sanctioned by the Church, however, and still in use today is a practice called Name Day. This custom entailed celebrating the birthday of the saint who shared your Christian name. If you wondered where this left people who weren’t named after saints, you were clearly a heretic because everyone was named after a saint. Burn the witch.
In any case, they are as many ways to commemorate birthdays as there are cultures that celebrate — or don’t celebrate — them. Many place special importance on specific birthdays that are seen as important rites of passage, such as a bar or bat mitzvah, Quinceañera, and appearing on MTV’s “Sweet Sixteen” acting like an entitled little bitch.
But Wait! There’s More! Birthday Bonus Facts
* The birthdays of notable historic personages are often observed by an official or national holiday to commemorate the event. This is a common practice across the globe. The Catholic Church celebrates the birth of saints on their feast days, which is the saint’s actual birthday as often as possible.
* The first children’s birthday celebrations originated in Germany, and were called “kinderfeste.”
* A person’s “lucky”, “golden”, or “star” birthday is the one when the age you are turning coincides with the day of your birth — i.e., you are turning 17 on the 17th.
* The 5th of October is the most popular birthday currently in the United States. Simple math will explain why — nine months prior to this date is New Year’s Eve.