Birthday celebrations honor individuals, reflect the cultural construction of cyclical time, and reinforce a universal emphasis on human maturation. In the United States, a birthday party is a public occasion during which the social status of a person changes. Children specifically value birthdays because these occasions are public declarations of a movement toward adulthood. Because birthday celebrations are not typically restricted by nations or religions, these annual events are anticipated and cherished around the world. In fact, birthdays are the most celebrated of all modern holidays.
Origins of the Birthday Party
Birthday celebrations in North America in the early 2000s reflect worldwide influences and the popularization of certain rituals and elements. Some rituals date from the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians, who first recognized patterns in time and developed calendars. In those societies, only members of the nobility were honored with birthday parties; nevertheless, the nobility often invited townspeople to participate, reinforcing the social order in the process. Some historians believe the custom of wearing crowns on birthdays originated at these early birthday festivals. Parham observes that early Christians celebrated "death days" because they did not believe in celebrating birthdays, as induction into heaven was viewed as more important than birth. However, in the fourth century, the Catholic Church decreed there should be a day to celebrate Jesus' birth; afterward, celebrating birthdays for common folk became widespread.
Around the same time, the custom of having birthday parties for children began in Germany with the "Kinderfeste," which translates into "children's party." During this event, family members woke the child and presented him or her with gifts and a cake topped with candles matching the child's age, with an additional candle to symbolize the "light of life" or good luck (Rinkoff, p. 62).
The Birthday Party in America
After the decline of the Puritan influence, which restricted celebrations in America, wealthy Protestants began hosting children's parties in the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, people of all religions practiced this custom. In the late 1800s, children's parties were organized by parents and featured many guests. In the early 1900s, parties more influenced by peer culture began to dominate, especially among older children, where the guest of honor had more control over the guest list and entertainment. With the introduction of party-planning books in the 1920s, new norms surrounding birthday parties emerged, such as that of inviting one guest for every year of the celebrant's age. Moreover, by the 1920s, children had come to associate birthday parties with cakes, gifts, and party decorations.
Americans imported the idea of a birthday cake directly from the German Kinderfeste. In 1859, a Kentucky schoolteacher named Mildred Hill composed a musical melody to sing to her students and titled it "Good Morning to You/All." Her sister, Patty Hill, penned the lyrics and in 1893 added a verse that began "Happy Birthday to You." The song was published in 1935 and has been translated into countless languages worldwide. At birthday celebrations, upon presentation of the cake and after the guests complete the song, the honoree is supposed to make a private wish and then try to blow out the candles on the cake. If all the candles are extinguished with the first breath, tradition has it the wish will come true.
The use of the piñata, a tradition imported from Mexico, is now a standard feature at many children's birthday parties in North America. Piñatas are hollow figures in the shape of animals, flowers, automobiles, or other objects. They are filled with candy and small toys and are hung from a tree or ceiling. Blindfolded children take turns hitting the piñata with a stick. The child responsible for breaking open the piñata is believed to have good luck in the future. After the piñata is broken, the children rush to collect as much of its contents as possible.
In England, the practice of sending birthday cards started about 100 years ago; now worldwide millions of cards are sent each year to wish loved ones a happy birthday. Birthday gifts were first offered by the ancient Romans, who believed that the celebrant was vulnerable to evil spirits. Thus, surrounding the honoree with gifts and loved ones was a way of offering protection. In America, the burgeoning retail industry quickly recognized the value of reinforcing the tradition of birthday gifts. Stores often publicized children's birthdays and sent letters to celebrants, informing them that "we have a little present . . . waiting at the store" (Pleck, p. 152).
Game playing has long been a tradition at both American and foreign birthday parties, with hide-and-seek, pin the tail on the donkey, tag, and relay races commonly played at children's birthday parties. Other games enjoyed in the nineteenth century included horseshoe pitching, ninepins (bowling), and wood-chopping contests (Rinkoff, p. 16).
Pleck observes that some women have chosen to "outsource" the work associated with the birthday party since as early as the 1920s. As more women have entered the work force, birthday parties have increasingly moved out of the home and into commercial venues such as McDonald's, miniature golf courses, movie theaters, pizza parlors, and swimming pools. These venues have contributed to a recent escalation in the elaborate nature of the birthday party, and have also meant that guest lists may be longer to reflect the size of these facilities. Moreover, extended families and the increase in divorce mean children often have multiple parties. Thus, increases in both expenses and the quantity of parties mean birthday celebrations for children have increased in social status and visibility.
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Linton, Ralph, and Adelin Linton. The Lore of Birthdays. New York: Henry Schuman, 1998.
Parham, Betty. "A Little Birthday History." Atlanta Journal and Constitution (28 June 2001): 14F.
Pleck, Elizabeth, H. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Rinkoff, Barbara. Birthday Parties Around the World. New York: M. Barrows, 1967.