Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Make a Wish!...a brief history of birthday tradtions

" April"--Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry by Limbourg Brothers
April is a pretty big birthday month in my little corner of the world with several friends celebrating their natal days, including my own on the sixth. It set me to wondering about some of our traditions and just how they got started. Thanks to the wonders of the Web I ran across several interesting articles and I'm happy to share some of the research with you this week.

By Jeff Dahl (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

You can't celebrate a birthday without the aid of a calendar of sorts so the first festivities originated after the advent of means to mark the passing of time. Ancient Egyptian astronomers used the stars to note the passing of one year to the next since the movement of the heavenly bodies was constant and observable. It is no great surprise, then, that some of the earliest recorded birthday celebrations were for those of the Pharaohs who were considered gods on earth. Most birthday parties of the ancient world were reserved for royalty and this may be the origin of the later day wearing of special birthday crowns. We're all kings and queens on our birthdays! A little later on, the Greeks celebrated their goddess, Artemis, by baking moon-shaped cakes and lighting them with candles to simulate lunar light. Romans followed by being the first to celebrate the birthdays of mere mortals, with those reaching their fiftieth birthdays given special recognition with cakes made from wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese. Of course, those special days were reserved for the male population until around the 12th century when us lowly females were deemed worthy of celebration. 

By Francesca Cesa Bianchi, Milano via Wikimedia Commons
In the good old pagan days, it was thought that people were surrounded by evil spirits who especially liked to gather about on special days such as birthdays. In order to ward off such dangerous influences, the birthday honoree would be surrounded by friends and family who would bring good wishes and positive thoughts to the occasion (and if they brought gifts, so much the better!) These were noisy events with the notion that such loud revelry would discourage malevolent spirits. Noise maker, anyone? And what's a birthday without blowing out a bunch of candles and making a silent wish as the smoke of the extinguished flames drifts upward? To the ancients, smoke sent prayers and wishes skyward to the realms of the gods who might grant such desires.

Mildred and Patty Hill
Marilyn Monroe sings "Happy Birthday Mr. President"
Yale Joel/Life Magazine/Time&Life Pictures, Getty Images
It seems the ubiquitous song, "Happy Birthday to You", has been around forever but it's a relatively new tradition. The melody was written in 1893 for a class of kindergartners by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill who penned the song  as "Good Morning to All". At some point, soon thereafter, the lyrics were changed to "Happy Birthday" and the little tune has been sung with gusto and varying levels of musicality ever since. (You might recall Marilyn Monroe's infamous public Madison Square Garden rendition to President John Kennedy in 1962.) 

So, next time you celebrate a birthday, break out the noise makers, wear a paper crown, and make a good wish when you blow out the candles on your cake as your well-wishers gather around singing "Happy Birthday to You!"

Have a good couple weeks, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...y'all come back now! 


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