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?