Birthdays all over

Next time you sing "Happy Birthday," you'll know what you're singing about.

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Earlier this week I was a guest at a birthday that was celebrated in a restaurant, reminding me that in the United States, birthdays are among the most common occasions for dining out. The birthday person is singled out, often to his or her acute embarrassment. The embarrassment is, in fact, expected and the victim must indeed appear embarrassed even if he or she is not -- this acknowledges the considerable effort made by the party throwers. A restaurant also provides the opportunity to announce a friendship to strangers, a gesture that never fails to help define and reinforce the relationship.

We sang "Happy Birthday To You" which was copyrighted in 1893 by two sisters, Mildred J. Hill, a church organist and authority on Negro spirituals, and Patty Smith Hill, a professor of education at Columbia University. They were born in Louisville, Ky., and published the song together in "Songs and Stories for the Kindergarten." It was originally called "Good Morning to All" and was similar to several other songs written earlier. The tune was changed here and there and the words "Happy Birthday to You" were added to the second stanza in 1924 by an unknown lyricist, who neglected to apply for a new copyright. It is the most frequently sung song in the Anglo-Saxon world.

A birthday party celebrates two important themes: It is a rite of initiation and a ceremony of measurement. How old are you now? How far have you come? Celebrating a birthday sets the stage for moving into another cycle of life.

Ancient Romans celebrated three different types of birthdays: Private celebrations among family and friends, the birthdays of cities and temples and the birthdays of past and present emperors or members of the imperial family.

During the 4th century B.C., people began to feel that they had a personal god that looked after them. In Rome this figure was called a genius, who entered the world when you were born. The genius accompanied you through life. You prayed to your genius. Your genius would send you a message and then let you know about it by making you sneeze. People would say "God bless you" in the hope that the message you had just gotten was good news. The Roman idea of a genius lives on in the belief in guardian angels.

It was a short step for the emperors of Rome to decide that they were themselves geniuses and gods, and demand that they be worshiped on their birthdays. The early Christians found this sacrilegious, and their refusal to worship emperors as gods led to the first persecutions. Early Christians refused to have anything to do with birthdays and didn't even celebrate Christ's birth until the 4th century A.D. They deliberately celebrated death as the beginning of eternity and liberation. The deaths of people who were martyred for not celebrating the emperor were of particular importance.

Today the birthday party is a celebration of passage from one stage of life to another. It follows the traditional pattern for initiations by requiring witnesses. Others must see that you are moving on, and they ratify the transition. The other people present are manifestations of your power; you, after all, were able to get these people together to celebrate your big day.

The birthday cake speaks to the meaning of the feast -- the sharing and the unity. The cake is not made according to a specific form as is a wedding cake or Christmas cake, because one of the most important aspects of the birthday is the person as an individual. The cake presented to me at my last birthday was made in the shape of an easy chair and represents my family's hope that someday I will sit down and be quiet.

The candles in the cake represent life, burning brightly for a short time and then snuffed out. The person blowing out the candles is saying, "This much of my life is over -- I'll never get it back, but I still have the breath of life within me and I am in control. I will blow away the past and start anew with this wish."

We celebrate some birthdays more than others. The first is important because it means that the baby has made it through the perils of its first 12 months. Sixteen marks the person as a fully sexual being. Eighteen was a recent addition, coinciding with the eligibility to vote.

In theory, 30 means that a person is fully responsible. In the ancient world you became a citizen only upon reaching your 30th birthday. In ancient Greece a man did not marry before 30. I'm sorry I didn't know this when I was in my 20s.

Forty is when a person begins what is usually considered the second half of his or her life. And at 50, even though you are probably about to enter the first decade where your experience begins to pay off, you are aware that the end is approaching. Until very recently, 65 meant retirement and everything after 70 was a celebration of sheer survival.

In Asian societies it is customary to note the number of years a person has lived but not to pay much attention to the actual day of birth: At New Year's everybody is a year older. In China everyone is categorized by a specific year in a 12-year cycle -- those born in the year of the Tiger, the Dragon or the Ox.

Interest in the day of one's birth reflects an interest in measurement, and modern American society takes that to an extreme. Governments and institutions categorize you by your age, tell you when you can drive, when you can vote, when you can have a beer and when you can take a bus at a discount rate. They even tell you when you're too old to order from the children's menu -- something I do quite often from the privacy of my hotel room, which saves me hundreds of dollars on my room service charges. They don't care about your feelings on any of these issues: The numbers are in control. The number of candles on a birthday cake dramatizes this system and, at some level, signifies obedience.

Never fear, there's also a candle-free way to celebrate: At your request, your congressperson can arrange for a personal American flag to fly over the Capitol in Washington on the specified date. Afterwards, you receive the flag and a certificate noting the date the flag was flown and in whose honor. The cost of the service, the flag and the certificate is under $20. You can even order your flag directly off the Web on this special order form. And for many of us this is the most economical and personal act the federal government will ever perform our behalf. So happy birthday.

By Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt


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