The Meaning of Birthdays



Recently I listened to a very interesting interview with a man who was born in 1937, in Turkey. No one knows the exact date of his birth as his original birth certificate simply said, harvest season 1937.  He went on to explain that the harvest would have taken place in either June or July but no one bothered to record the exact date of his birth.

Several years later actual dates were required in Turkey. Parents had to go back and select a birth date for each child in the case of the man being interviewed his parents simply listed January 1, 1937.  He laughed and said the first of the year was a common date selected by parents regardless of when the child was actually born.

According to this man no one in his country celebrated birthdays. There was no cake, no guests invited to join in a meal and definitely no gifts to the birthday girl or boy.  It should be noted that this area wasn’t Muslim as it is today and that I have no idea how people in Turkey celebrate birthdays now.

The Amish are another group that while they celebrate birthdays, they do so in a very understated manner.  The family may have ice cream, a real treat,  after dinner. A child would receive a gift but it would be inexpensive such as a coloring book or maybe a new dress, but only if needed. There are times when a gathering celebrates a birthday such as this story of one woman’s 80th birthday, still a very simple affair if you ask me.


Growing up birthdays weren’t a big deal. If more than one family member had a birthday in that month there would be one celebration for all. When that happened with children not all the children appreciated not having a day to themselves.

My sister was born on March 23rd, three years later our brother was born on March 22nd.  Because their birthdays were only a day apart they shared a birthday “party”.  It was a simple affair, a weekend day was selected, grandparents were invited to join us after dinner for cake and ice cream.  My siblings were allowed to choose the flavor of cake they wanted, and two small cakes would be baked, one was always chocolate the other varied, then they were placed next to each other and frosted as one cake. Gifts were simple, new clothes, maybe a book or small toy but nothing extravagant.

I used to joke with my oldest son that he should have to share his party (which was a small gathering of close family at home) with me because I was the one who went through the pain of bringing him into the world.  It was my way of reminding him that the meaning of a birthday was about more than what presents you received. Of course that came back on me when the year my son watched his wife give birth he went out and bought me a gift on his birthday. I cherish my mandala because of the meaning behind it.

I can’t help wondering why we find it so important to make a big deal out of birthdays.  Do we have to make it a big production today because a home baked cake or ice cream are no longer treats to us living in this world of abundance?  Or maybe we’ve gone overboard in wanting to build positive self-esteem in our children but whatever the reason birthdays are now big productions.


I wondered if other countries go all out for birthdays and Googled the subject. I noticed several countries where friends and relatives are invited to celebrate birthdays but the following I found the most interesting. (source)

  • In China, The birthday child pays respect to his/her parents and receives a gift of money. Friends and relatives are invited to lunch and noodles are served to wish the birthday child a long life.
  • In many African nations,  they hold initiation ceremonies for groups of children instead of birthdays. When children reach a certain designated age, they learn the laws, beliefs, customs, songs and dances of their tribes.
  • In Aruba,  Children take a treat to school for their classmates and all teachers. Each teacher receives a treat and gives the birthday child a small gift like a pencil, an eraser or a postcard. The birthday child is also allowed to wear special clothes instead of the school uniform.
  • In Cuba, Food, music, pinatas and lots of people. The celebrations are very similar to the United States.  This surprised me the most because the country has been cut off from the rest of the world for so long I would have thought candy to fill pinatas would be hard to come by.
  • In Vietnam, Everyones birthday is celebrated on new years day.  Not only is Tet the beginning of a New Year, it is also everyone’s birthday. The Vietnamese do not know or acknowledge the exact day they were born.  On the first morning of Tet, adults congratulate children on becoming a year older by presenting them with red envelopes that contain “Lucky Money”.

While these are the traditional ways of celebrating birthdays it was impossible to learn if people outside the US go all out spending hundreds of dollars, in some cases, to have elaborate birthday parties or purchase big gifts.

Things have gotten so out-of-hand that there is even a reality TV show Outrageous Kids Parties one family featured spent $32,000 for their daughter’s sixth birthday. Express study found that British families alone spend nearly $2 billion on first birthday parties. That’s just for the child’s first birthday! Just think of all the things that 2 billion dollars could have been spent on instead, better education maybe?

These extravagant parties aside, I come back to the question of why we bother to make a big production out of a birthday.   I guess it comes down to how we view a birthday.  Is it a day to make a child feel special or is it a day to celebrate and reflect on welcoming that child into the world. If we want to have a more meaningful celebration then it stands to reason we need to define for ourselves what we are celebrating in the first place.

How do you celebrate birthdays?




  1. Ha! Well, as a person who just had a birthday, this is a timely post! My family has always been pretty low key about birthdays. I got to have a party when I was a kid, but usually it was just a sleepover with friends and the main attraction was staying up all night long telling ghost stories.

    In Norway while they do celebrate birthdays, it’s not as big of a deal as your “name day”. Each name has a specific day on the calendar and everybody with that name celebrates on that day. I can’t remember the origin of it, but I think it was something the early church did to replace birthdays because they were seen as an evil pagan ritual.


    • Happy belated birthday, Cat. I think a birthday sleepover would be fun. My birthday falls 3 days after Christmas so I never had a birthday. My mother simply said it was too much to have a birthday so close on the heels of Christmas. Later my grandparents did celebrate my birthday by inviting a couple of my closest friends to join us for dinner. That was perfect for me. Having not had parties when young I had, and have, a hard time accepting gifts or being the center of attention so a simple dinner was enough for me.

      I find birthday celebrations from around the globe to be so interesting. The idea of a name day feels very strange coming from a culture that celebrates birthdays but I can’t see it working here in the US because names are so diverse we would never be able to cover all of them. I understand how many of the holidays we know have pagan roots but how does a birthday have pagan roots?


  2. Let me just say, that your granddaughter glowing in the light of the candles, looks like an angel. A very sweet picture.

    I had not heard of the Norway name thing, but I had heard of the Vietnamese custom of everyone getting a year older at the beginning of the year. I find them fascinating because they are so different than the concept we use here.


    • Thank you, I’m biased but I thought the same about her picture. 🙂

      Isn’t it fascinating how differently people view birthdays depending on where we live? I personally like celebrating birthdays, especially for the little ones, but I have trouble enjoying over-the-top parties and would like to see those give way to a simple party at home, a park or some other free venue and the presents come down to earth again.


  3. The photo of your granddaughter is so sweet. Soon she will need a whole cake instead of a cupcake to hold all the candles!
    When I was growing up birthdays were only celebrated with family, cake, ice cream and presents. Mostly my gifts were school clothes as my birthday was right around the time school started. By the time my children came along, birthdays were celebrated with family but there was also a kids party. They weren’t a big deal, homemade birthday cake and ice cream and homemade games at home. When they were older, sleepovers for a few friends. Now it’s all gotten much more grand and expensive for my grandsons’ birthday parties. They are held at party places, like Chuck E Cheese, Grand Slam, a laser tag place, bowling alley, even a hotel with a water park. Adults, family, kids are all invited to it and the presents are much larger.
    For the adults in my family we usually make a special meal with a special dessert. Nobody much likes cake so it’s pie, strawberry shortcake — whatever is the person’s favorite. Small presents, a book, something handmade, a gift card.
    I guess I like the idea of celebrating each person in a family and making them feel special for one day a year. But preferably not in an extravagant way that involves lots of money and plastic!


    • Please!! She’s growing up too quickly as it is. 🙂 This week she visited the elementary school to be introduced to the kindergarten and is excited by how grown up she has become. Mom was trying to find something the day after her birthday and she told mom where it was. When mom asked how she knew that she replied, “I know things because I’m five now.” 🙂

      I grew up much the same as you did. Our parties were simple with a homemade cake, a scoop of ice cream and small gifts from family. While I don’t believe we need to be spending money on these extravagant parties I do have to accept times have changed. For example, my youngest son bought a small house. The rooms are perfect size for them and the two children but not big enough to have more than a few guests. They have parties outside the house for their children as a result but feel the cost is much less to them than a higher mortgage and utilities would cost for a bigger home. This year the party was held at the Children’s Science Museum, a hands on museum. Their cost was much lower than I thought it would be because the families of five of the seven children to attend were members of the museum. In addition to seven children attending, there was myself, my son’s father and one couple who are their best friends. A pretty small affair compared to some parties. One year they were able to use (free of charge) the meeting room of the public library as well so they do look for the best deals.

      For the adults in our family we downplay things much like you do. Sometimes there’s a dinner other times we just get together for dessert and gifts are small, I often give books or something handmade too.


  4. Live and learn had it right, your granddaughter looks like an Angel. Wish her happy birthday from me too. Somehow it didn’t register in my brain when you were making the headpieces that her birthday was so soon. I believe birthdays should be sacred celebrations, not a hoopla event. In my family of origin, my mother, brother and I all had a birthday within one week. Mine was last. Believe it or not, mom forgot my brothers and my birthday. I had one party at 13. I never expected it and someone in our neighborhood must have encouraged my mother to have it. It was a memory I will cherish forever. We didn’t dare forget my mothers. With my kids, it’s a simple but special event. A cake and a few close friends. Family if they happened to be close by. (not usually) Gifts are still practical. My SIL has a birthday the day after Christmas. We sent her flowers this year. It’s always a forgotten day for her. I love to go out for dinner on my birthday and have my kids and sister with. You remember my post about my daughter taking me to the beach for a long weekend when I was 65. We had the best time. She had saved for a year for it. I cherish each day they are here so the birthday is when I get to put extra emphasis on it.


    • Thank you, Marlene, I thought she looked absolutely angelic myself. I am appalled to hear your mother never remembered her children’s birthdays while expecting you to remember and make a deal out of hers. I’m glad a neighbor talked your mother into a party for you even if it was the only time. I feel for your sister having a birthday the day after Christmas as I know how it feels to have Christmas overshadow your day.

      I do remember your post about your beach birthday but didn’t realize your daughter had saved all year to gift you with that trip, what a special daughter you have. I think we all deserve a day of our own, especially children, I just think we’ve forgotten the true meaning of birthdays when we throw these elaborate expensive parties with expensive gifts for children. Raising my boys we settled in a rather well-to-do community where families gifted their children with gifts I thought were ridiculously outrageous. One boy for his sixteenth birthday received a brand new hummer another for his eighteenth received a classic corvette. In both these boys cases, as adults they were unable to find work that provided them with the lifestyles and toys they were accustomed to and turned to selling drugs to keep the toys coming. Both are in prison today. Those cases caused me to believe that giving so much to our children can lead to their having problems adjusting later in life. I guess what it comes down to is that I do want to celebrate individual birthdays, I just want to see them more about the child and less about outdoing previous years. It’s come to be such a production birthdays are starting to be like Christmas where all the preparation and money bring less satisfaction when the day arrives, if that makes any sense.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It all makes perfect sense to me. I have pretty much the same philosophy. Keep it simple. I celebrate birthdays bigger than Christmas. That’s not saying much because I do a pretty simple Christmas too. There are always so many I want to think of at Christmas in some small way that I would rather think of them on their birthdays in a slightly bigger way. My kids had everything they needed as children, not everything they wanted. Other than the fact that they knew I loved them.


        • I like the idea of making birthdays bigger than Christmas. Hmm you planted an idea in my head I will have to play with that a bit and see where it leads. 🙂 I think you hit it on the truth of life. We need to see our children have every thing they need not necessarily every thing they want. That makes for a better adjusted adult in the end.

          Liked by 1 person

          • My kids were never angry about the discipline they received. It was always fair and just as well as meant to protect them against great harm. They got it which is why we have such a good relationship. I’m sure yours understood the discipline as well. They knew they were heard.


          • My boys didn’t resent any discipline either. I had a lot of problems with my oldest son. We didn’t know it at the time but he was exhibiting bi-polar symptoms from about age 12. Then in his teens he took to acting out and self medicating which led to a very strained relationship between us. Today we are very close but we also took the time to talk through what he had been going through and his feelings during all that. I got to hear how he viewed my parenting in a non-judgemental way too.

            Liked by 1 person

          • It was a stressful time for us and not something I would wish on any family. But we made it through, maybe a bit tattered but we’re still standing.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. This post actually arrived on my birthday – so it was very fitting. I share my birthday with my partner, which makes it extra lovely. I decided many years ago to never work on my birthday – and now he doesn’t either. Instead we go off and do something lovely – this year it was quietly boating up a nearby river that we hadn’t explored before with a picnic lunch. Birthdays have always been celebrated in my family, just low key though, which is how I like it. I wish people wouldn’t feel obliged to get presents though – now I understand why our parents never wanted gifts. Totally gorgeous grand daughter by the way.


    • Happy Birthday, Anne and to your partner as well! How nice that you have been able to avoid having to work on your birthday and your boat ride with picnic lunch is something I would greatly enjoy on any day of the year.


  6. I really enjoyed this birthday post, thankyou, Lois! (Even though it is not my birthday!)
    We try to think more of the people than the birthday, it’s all about family and usually lovely. My eldest daughter just turned 32 on Sunday and my husband always congratulates me on having become a mother that day :). We try to stay sensible with gifts. Last week it was my best friend’s birthday – she always takes the day off for her birthday and for the first time since we were 18, I was in her country and able to spend the day with her; we went out to a pretty English country town and to a lovely rural stately home, enjoying lots of time chatting over tea and knitting – just perfect! Plus the sun came out unexpectedly and the blue skies and beautiful sundown really made the day. She appreciated it very much because she lives in an industrial city and has a stressful life. I didn’t buy her any birthday present other than her lunch and tea and cake lol. What a great memory.
    Next up is my youngest grandson’s first birthday – another milestone and an excuse for a family get-together (as if we needed one!).


    • You are welcome, and a happy birthday to your daughter. I suspected from our previous conversations on the differences between our countries that your birthday celebrations would be smaller and more simple than what ours have turned into. You have a very sweet husband who makes a point of giving you recognition on your children’s birthdays. While I joked with my son when he was little I never meant that I expected gifts on his birthday but I would love to see people celebrate in someway that reflected the connection of mother and child on that day in our family history. Again, it’s not because I wanted any recognition but even for the child to be told a story of their birth to make birthdays less about the gifts and party and more about how happy the family was to welcome them on this day. Does that make sense? Oh and in my fantasy the child is more than welcome to all the gifts, I have no need of them. 🙂

      I can’t think of a better way to spend a birthday as an adult than how you spent your friend’s birthday in the English countryside. It sounds like regardless of the weather the two of you had a perfect day.


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