The History of Birthdays

Because I am having one today, I’ve decided to look into the history of birthday celebrations. This is useful data for an author of historical fiction or for writers seeking to explore world building.

Birthdays are universal to humans around the world. My private theory around the importance of birthdays, especially the first one, is that people were grateful whenever a child made it through their first year alive. Celebration was mandatory, a way of readying the child for the next difficult years, offering protections against evil, danger and illness. In China, their heads were shaved to release evil spirits who might be inside there. In Africa, tribal celebratory rituals assault evil spirits in various ways, either by celebrating the birthday, or not. Instead of birthday cake, the birthday-child has an oto, mashed sweet potato and egg fried in palm oil. Sounds delicious!

Certain tribes have Krada–”Soul Day”, a day of festivities that begin with a ritual bath using a particular leaf. For the Akanfos Soul Day corresponds with the day they were born, not the date. Also the celestial body which is dominant at dawn after the night of the birth-day governs that day and is included in the celebration. If their Soul Day is Monday, and the date falls on a different day, they must wait until the following Monday to party.

I have always been partial to Lewis Carroll’s invention of Unbirthdays. Humpty Dumpty explains this to Alice, who compliments him on his belt—um, cravat—and for which Alice does some simple math.

September 22 (my birthday) is also my sister’s birthday—exactly 3 years older than me, inextricably entangled with the Autumnal Equinox, and celebrated since 1978 as Hobbit Day—Frodo and Bilbo Baggins’ shared birthday. Hobbits give away gifts on their birthdays, rather than receive them. It’s quite likely that in Hobbiton, many of the same gift was given to someone else—the Shire version of re-gifting.

I’ve also noticed that “Name Day” is used in popular fantastical fiction. I honestly didn’t know what a Name Day was, assuming it was popular fantastical fiction jargon. However I learned that it has more to do with Christianity. In several Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries, a celebration takes place on the day of a saint with the same name. In this tradition too, there can be more than one pile of gifts.

This receipt and dispensation of gifts happens more that once a year when we celebrate the birthdays of the influential, famous and revered. Christmas comes to mind; the Japanese celebrate Showa Day to honor the birth of Emperor Showa Hirohito’s birthday; October 2 is Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday and all of India closes down.

Muhammad, Martin Luther King, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Elizabeth II are honored in this way, and don’t forget the living icon Kim Il-sung.

Honoring birthdays in historical fiction writing must include class. That is, at the turn of the 19th century, while literacy was not a thing for all, many might not know the date of their birth. The very poor of London had no reason to celebrate another year of life, if they were lucky enough to do so, while the titled classes kept detailed “family bibles” of births and deaths and held lavish parties. Baked into the cake would be a coin and a thimble. The one who got the thimble would never marry. Sad news for a female Victorian or Edwardian teen-ager whose only opportunity for survival in society was wedlock.

The idea of a birthday—celebrating another year of life—works best when the cycle of the planets is understood. In world-building, you would have to clearly design the position of your world in its particular solar system—that is if you are accepting of current thought in astrophysics. Other concepts are available to any imagination. Most world-building activity is made much simpler by adopting the physics of Earth’s orbit and distance from our sun.

The function of honoring birthdays is deeply ingrained in human beings. In my writing, and in the historical novel I am now writing, I’ve found I neglect the power of birthdays in fiction, because few things are more powerfully emotional—the birthday of the deceased, the birthday no one wants, the birthday riotous with celebration. It’s something to think about.And what about Frankenstein? What birthday works best for him?



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


The History of Birthdays — 8 Comments

  1. Since Queen Beatrix abdicated on Queen’s Day in 2013 and her son Willem Alexander took over as king of the Netherlands, the celebration has been renamed King’s Day and moved to his birthday, April 27th.
    Before that, Queen’s Day was held on his grandmother Juliana’s birthday, April 30th. When Beatrix ascended the throne she declined to move the date, as her own birthday is in January, which is an unfortunate day for holding large outdoor parties, concerts and flea markets; so Queen’s Day remained celebrated on dowager queen Juliana’s birthday 🙂

    It’s a very popular occasion, a national street party. This quote from the linked Wikipedia article captures the essence really well:
    A local Orange Committee* member said of Koninginnedag in 2011:
    “Friendships—and community—will be formed. For me that’s really what Queen’s Day is all about. It’s not an outburst of patriotism, it’s not even about the popularity of the royal family. It’s about a sense of belonging. For one day, everybody is the same in Holland. Bright orange and barmy.”
    (*The local Orange Committee volunteers organise the local festivities; every town and municipality has such a Committee).

    A lot of Dutch people love their royal family for this reason, that they provide a focal point (maybe in some sense, an excuse, or a generally non-controversial instigator) for a sense of unity that’s completely separate from any political divisions going on; and also not related to militaristic patriotism or a declaration of superiority – just a sense of family and belonging, and an opportunity to have some fun together.

    • I love reading about these details. On one of my stopovers in Amsterdam, we took the train to Den Haag to see the Escher Museum, which is in the Queen’s winter palace. Many of the rooms were preserved to honor her.

  2. Regarding Namedays: on holiday in France as a child, I was surprised to learn that the French child I was playing with didn’t know or celebrate her birthday, instead celebrating her anniversaries on the Name Day of the saint she was named for. So she might have been born in June or July, but having been named after saint Hannah would celebrate her anniversary on December 9th.
    So if you name a child born on December 1st Hannah, she’d have her first anniversary just 8 days later; while someone born in the previous January but also named Hannah would be nearly a year older but have the same number of anniversaries – which was a very confusing concept to a child who was used to “how many birthdays have you had?” saying something about one’s age.

  3. We can always have our age the way thoroughbred horses do.

    Hmm, should I celebrate my bird’s hatch day or laying day (provided I knew when either occurred)?

  4. Happy Birthday!

    For classic juvenile fiction in which the plot revolves around name days, especially but not only in Swedish culture, see Jennie D. Lindquist, ‘The Golden Name Day,’ NY: Harper and Brothers, 1955. Illustrator: Garth Williams. I first read this one in the early sixties, and still periodically reread it and its two sequels. Gentle stories of family life in the early 1900s.