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.
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.
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?