It is a big birthday week in our family. My twin sister has a birthday along with my nephew and my brother. Due to the fact I have a twin sister, I am completing my most recent trip around the sun, too.
Birthdays are fun. I spent some time this year asking each person what they would like to have on their special day. My nephew, who will be turning 8, told his father he would sit down with him and discuss everything he wanted. He is already preparing to be in the boardroom at his age. Everything is a negotiation, it appears. My sister really could not think of anything right off hand. My brother has three young children; he is just hoping for the gift of a nap.
The first birthday celebrations seem to have appeared with the pharaohs of Egypt in ancient times. The day an individual became a pharaoh was considered the birth of the man as a god. His physical birth did not mean a thing. His supernatural birth did.
The Greeks seemed to follow the Egyptians in celebrating some kind of birth day, but again, these were not familial rituals as they often appear to be in the present. It was in Greece where the tradition of putting candles on cakes first began. People brought rounded cakes to the temple of Artemis to worship the moon.
The Romans were the first civilization to celebrate individual birthdays, but only for men. According to a few classical historians, the Romans prided themselves on remembering the start of something — whether it be a city, a building, or an individual male life — particularly within the higher classes. In many parts of the Roman Republic and later empire, the fact that an infant lived through the first year was a special occasion in itself.
Roman birthdays were filled with rituals honoring personal spirits for protection during the year ahead. Birthday parties consisted of religious rituals more than individual accolades. The Romans continued to celebrate yearly rituals to honor their own gods. Moreover, they were into structures, honoring the construction of important buildings and temples integral to their pagan beliefs.
As Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus around the 4th century, the idea of celebrating the physical birth of someone really took hold.
Recognizing any birthday for women took a little longer. They probably were not recognized until the 1100s.
By then, calling out someone to honor their birthday was generally celebrated with a cake. In Germany during the Middle Ages, sweet cakes were given to children in wealthy families to mark their birth date. Candles were placed on these cakes, too. A candle was included for each year of life, plus, at least one candle for the year ahead.
Even during this time, there were all kinds of stories about how the candles were supposed to be blown out and speculations regarding the consequences for the individual if candles were left lit on the cake. Signs and portents abounded.
The Industrial Revolution in Germany, France and England seems to have provided more opportunities for all people, male and female, adults and children, to celebrate the days of their birth. Machines made mass-produced cakes. These could be purchased and used for an individual’s birthday celebration. By the 1920s, musicians and lyricists had changed a song written in the 1890s to the traditional “Happy Birthday to You.” In 1968, The Beatles wrote their birthday song in the studio while working on a double album. The little ditty made it onto the album, but writers John Lennon and Paul McCartney did not consider it a good song. Still, it passes in pop culture today.
There are birthdays which seem paramount. My sister thought the world might transform the moment she turned 16. I remember turning 33 and thinking my grandfather was the same age when he was drafted into the Army during the World War II and didn’t see his wife and children for two years. My dad turns 75 this summer, and by now my wife is a continual 25 years old.
A birthday is a marker on the road of life. A trip around the sun fills our souls with memories. I did a few calculations. Between birthdays, I’ll probably walk my dog for 300 miles, drink at least 750 cups of coffee, and spend a lot of important and valuable time with my wife on the porch living life with her.
After all, birthdays are about recognizing time. One day in a specific year, we are going to run out of physical birthdays. Instead of celebrating in person, we will be remembered by those who loved us best.
We will pass on into history, where I hope there will be lots of cake.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.