Saturday, January 1, 2011

The origin of birthday celebrations

I thought a good post on the "birth" of the new year would be a short study on birthdays. I've often wondered about how we came to celebrate people's birthdays. It seems so universal now that it's almost as if we've always had birthday celebrations in people's honor. But that is certainly not the case.

First of all, birthdays couldn't exist without the creation and knowledge of a calendar. And a calendar marking the passing of time was not universal until very recently. Ancient Egyptians had a calendar based on the solar phases and they were the first documented civilization to celebrate birthdays. But birthday celebrations were reserved for only the Pharaohs, not common folk or women or children. The Ancient Greeks loved birthdays and even celebrated them with a cake and candles, much like we do today. But again, this was only for men of some social standing. As many people know, the birthday song was originally written in the late nineteenth century as a children's song called "good morning to you" but eventually morphed into the birthday song we're all familiar with today.

My theory is that the celebration of birthdays is a very western tradition. Ancient tribes and Eastern philosophies do not put emphasis on the individual, rather in nature as a whole. The self-importance of every individual is something only adopted during the Humanism Renaissance and developed fully in the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the American colonies. Before that I would imagine that hardly anybody celebrated birthdays, and if they did it would be reserved only for gods and nobility. In more primitive cultures, where there are no kingdoms or defined leaders, there are probably no birthday celebrations.

So happy birthday 2011. May you bring us good fortune for your entire duration. Until you die and 2012 takes your place.

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