It is speculated that the tradition of celebrating birthdays began with an all-male Pagan cult, long before the rise of Christianity. Pagan cultures believed they were susceptible to evil spirits, especially during life changes. Since a birthday signifies change, it was important for the birthday person to be surrounded by friends and family. Loved ones shielded the person in happiness and laughter, which in turn, warded off evil spirits.
Birthdays of the rich and powerful have been celebrated for millennia. There are records showing Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors held birthday festivities. Historians are certain that common people have also been celebrating birthdays for some time, but few records still exist. Today birthdays are celebrated in many different cultures with a vast array of rituals and traditions.
Cultural Birthday Celebrations
In Chinese culture, symbolism is important, so it is not surprising that symbols play a large role in Chinese birthday celebrations. On the day of their birth, newborns are given gifts and toys decorated with tigers for protection. Chinese families also serve extra-long noodles for a child’s birthday lunch to ensure long life.
Korean children celebrate birthdays with symbols as well. The family places objects around the birthday child, like fruit, rice, calligraphy brushes and money. Whichever object the child picks up will predict his future. For example, choosing rice foreshadows material wealth.
Baking symbolic objects inside a birthday cake is an old English tradition. In medieval times coins and thimbles were mixed into the cake batter, and then baked. The birthday-goer who found the coin would be blessed with wealth, while the finder of the thimble would be cursed in love. This tradition is still practiced today, but the objects are usually substituted for fake coins and candies.
Norwegians, Danish and Swedes all use their national flags as decorations for birthday celebrations. Flags are placed outside of the home of a birthday person. Norwegians even decorate the streets with flags on the birthdays of important people.
In the U.S. birthday spankings and earlobe pulls, which actually began in Argentina, are very popular. Similar traditions exist all over the world. In Ireland and the UK, children are given birthday bumps. The birthday boy or girl is bumped off the floor for every year of life, and of course one to grow on. Israeli kids are lifted in a special decorated chair for each year of life, and one for luck.
Many Latin American cultures recognize a girl’s 15th birthday (or quinceanera) as a passage from childhood into adulthood. During this ceremony, the girl and her family participate in a candle-lighting ritual and sometimes the young woman changes from flat shoes to heels. In the U.S. the quinceanera is similar to sweet sixteen.
In the U.S. birthdays are celebrated with cake and candles. Accompanying the entrance of the blazing cake is the song “Happy Birthday to You,” which was written in 1893 by two American sisters. At the end of the song, the birthday person blows out the candles and makes a wish. This action is symbolic of extinguishing the past, while the wish is meant to influence the future. However, if the birthday person repeats the wish aloud, it will not come true.
Regardless of culture or tradition, birthdays are a person’s natural rite of passage through life. They mark the anniversary of your birth, and remind others of your journey. Each year every person, from infants to grandparents, has one special day. Celebrate your birthday with friends and family. Even if you’re not fazed by the treat of evil spirits, it will still be a happy and memorable event.
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