New Worlds: Happy Birthday!

New Worlds started up on the first Friday of March, so this is as good a week as any to declare the six-month anniversary of the series! And, in a happy coincidence, it is also my birthday. 🙂 If you’ve been enjoying these posts, please consider supporting them on Patreon, or signal-boosting to others who might be interested!

Given the timing, this seems like a great opportunity to talk about birthdays.

Seems like a simple idea, right? Celebrating the day you’re a year older. Except it turns out there’s way more variation in that concept than you might expect.

Let’s start with the date itself. Here in the United States, most of us celebrate our birthday on the day we were born. But imagine you live in a preliterate society, or one where reading and writing, much less the tracking of calendrical dates, are the realm of educated specialists only. In that situation, you’re unlikely to know the precise date of your birth, because “precise dates” aren’t really a concept you deal with much at all. You’ll calculate it in more relative terms: I might say I was born at the waning half moon before the fall equinox. (This is still how we calculate the date of Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox). Or I might not even remember that much specificity, and just peg my birthday as happening in late summer.

That uncertainty probably contributed to the practice of celebrating a name day instead of a birthday. Though I think it’s less common now, in Christian countries where people are customarily named after saints, you might celebrate on the feast day of that saint instead. Those dates will be known, because they’re part of the religious calendar and have associated rites and traditions. In essence, this piggybacks off the work done by the aforementioned educated specialists.

But not every part of the world is concerned with having an individualized day for celebration. In the traditional system used by China and many countries within their cultural sphere, everybody has the exact same “birthday” — or rather, gets one year older on the same day, New Year’s. Someone born a week before the end of the year will, in that reckoning, be considered a year older than someone born just two weeks later, a week into the new year. Which seems imprecise, when you’re used to the individualized approach, but it makes a lot of sense in societies that emphasize the communal over the individual, and it saves a lot of mental arithmetic (my brother is more or less three years older than I am, but our birthdays are three months apart, so for a quarter of the year he’s technically four years older).

Even calculating how many years old you are isn’t as standardized as you might think. The East Asian system has another quirk, which is that you’re considered to be one year old when you’re born. I’m not sure whether that’s because gestation gets counted toward your age, or because the number indicates which year you’re in rather than which one you’ve completed; can anyone clarify that for me? (I suspect it’s the latter, based on the way the Korean section of the Wikipedia page describes it. I’d love confirmation, though.) But going back to that hypothetical baby born a week before the New Year: under that system, eight days after birth they’re two years old. I’ll admit my knee-jerk reaction is to think “wow, that’s inaccurate” — but that’s when you have to stop and realize that accuracy depends on what exactly you want to be precise about. Prioritizing the precise number of solar years since your date of birth is only one way to do it, and there’s no reason that has to be the most important thing to track.

Regardless of when they fall, some birthdays are more important than others. I’ll talk more about adulthood in some upcoming posts, but for now I’ll just say that whatever birthday marks official adulthood in your society tends to be an important one; to pick one example, Jews traditionally become adults at age 13 for boys and 12 for girls, when they become bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah respectively (meaning son or daughter of commandment). But formal adulthood isn’t the only reason to mark an age out as special. In the United States, for example, 21 tends to be an important number for many people, because that’s when they’re finally permitted by law to drink alcohol. In Japan, there’s a festival for girls who are three or seven years old and boys who are five, and (for reasons related to how they’re written) the 77th, 88th, and 99th birthdays are also seen as noteworthy. In many parts of East Asia, including Japan, the 60th birthday is significant, because then a person has completed a full sexagenary cycle of the Chinese calendar. Sarah Monette incorporated an idea like this into her Doctrine of Labyrinths series; the society there uses two different counting systems, decimal and septenary, and under the latter, being 49 years old (7 x 7) is a landmark.

The final thing to note here is that sometimes cultures don’t celebrate birthdays at all. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t; Islam is divided on the matter, even down to the question of whether Muslims should celebrate the birthday of Muhammad. The early Christian writer Origen encouraged you to look with disgust on your birthday. This seems to happen because of a desire for the group to differentiate itself from other religious communities (ones that do make a big deal out of the day), and/or because of the belief that birthdays are egotistical and draw your attention away from God. Whatever the reason, don’t assume that everybody considers them a special occasion, worthy of commemoration.

Me? I plan to celebrate my birthday to the hilt, with good food, the company of friends, and karaoke. Got any interesting birthday traditions? Share ‘em in the comments!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Happy Birthday! — 8 Comments

  1. I can clarify the Korean age thing! I was confused about this a *lot* as a kid (having internalized the Western method of computing age), and ALL my relatives plus my mom told me that you got one year at birth for the time you spent in the womb.

    I still can’t compute my “Korean age” worth beans, though. My cousins all laughed at me and did it for me whenever I asked.

  2. Happy Birthday! Wishing you all the best, for the day and after. Have fun and keep safe.

  3. Or, avoiding days and months, only celebrating every five or ten years (“we’ve been selling cars for 50 years – to celebrate, we’re having major sales this year”)

    The only instance of this happening with people – that i know of – is in the play _Pirates of Penzance_ with one character having been born on a leap year.

    Just had a scary thought – a kid is born on the day of a planet’s every-third-year sighting and the week of an annual meteor shower…and when a teenager or adult, is sent away to another part of the kingdom — where neither the planet nor the shower can ever be seen. The kid’s legally stuck at that age for however long he has to be stationed there.