Why do we celebrate birthdays?

               Having recently celebrated my birthday, multiple questions have been flooding my brain such as; Why are we the only species that celebrates birthdays? Since when have people been celebrating their birthdays and from where did this idea originate from? Along with this there are a number of other traditions associated with birthdays such as blowing out candles and singing “happy birthday” that are all simply accepted as being connected with birthdays however hardly anyone knows why.  I spoke to, 15-year-old Bavleen Atwal, who said that “birthdays are a very important part of my life, they not only mark the day of my birth but it is also a time for family and celebration”.  Which shows one side of why people celebrate birthdays, however there is no explanation on its origin or history, which I plan to find out.

               To start, as we know there were not always calendars available and they were only brought around in 1582, before this people would use the moons and the sun to predict the day and time which made it very difficult for people at that time to know when their exact birthday was. Although the history around birthdays and when this tradition officially begun is still unknown due to us not having concrete evidence dating back to when this custom began. We do have certain references to birthdays from early on in time such as the reference to a Pharaoh’s birthday in the Bible. But, this reference is much debated as some believe that the birthday referred to is not the Pharaoh’s date of birth but instead the day he was crowned as this was considered very important and thus celebrated by those in ancient Egypt at that time.

Secondly, celebrating birthdays was a pagan ritual, due to this link between birthdays and paganism, many Christians didn’t celebrate their birthdays. Pagan’s believed that evil spirits were around on days when big changes occurred, such as getting a year older. It was only until around the 4th century that Christians started celebrating the birth of Jesus as the Christmas holiday. Although it is thought by some that this was begun in hopes to attract those already celebrating the roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was a Roman festival honouring the god of Saturn in December.  

               Thirdly, another ritual associated with birthdays is the use of candles and cakes. Has anyone else ever wondered why we do this? Well, apparently cakes were first made in Germany during the Middle Ages in a festival called Kinderfest which was held for German children to commemorate their birthdays. Although at first cakes were bread like products, by the 17th century cakes began to become much more complex through the use of ornaments such as icing, decorations and layers. Even though these were usually only made for the wealthy that could afford the highly-priced ingredients, by the 18th century baking utensils and food became much more accessible and so affordable which led to the price of cakes decreasing and the number of cakes being produced increasing. Furthermore, some argue that since mainly nobles were the ones able to have their birthdays celebrated this is where the custom of wearing a “birthday crown” originates from.

In addition, thanks to the Industrial Revolution the number of people celebrating birthdays in an array of cultures rapidly increased. This in combination with the fact that the necessary ingredients for baking cakes were becoming more available and there were large advances in mass production, bakeries started making pre-made cakes in large batches for lower prices. Overall this allowed a larger range of people to celebrate their birthdays with cakes for affordable prices.  Candles on the other hand are believed to have originated from a tribute made by Greeks to one of their goddesses, Artemis, during which they offered moon shaped cakes to the lunar goddess and put lit candles on top to imitate the moon’s radiance and her beauty.

               Fourthly, it is believed by many that Ancient Romans were the first civilization to celebrate the birthday of a common man, ordinary citizen of this era would commemorate the birth of friends and family members. In particular whenever any Roman turned Fifty a cake would be created for them. Although, Governments were the institutes that created public holidays in remembrance of famous citizens. Despite this, women, unfortunately, did not have their birthdays celebrated until around the 21st century.

               Finally, the birthday song is apparently a remix of a different song that was not meant to be used in order to commemorate a birthday. The birthday song was originally a song made by two sisters Mildred. J Hill and Patty Hill titled, “Good morning to all” and its original purpose was for it to be sung by students before starting the school day. However, like with any song produced so were variations, one of which was made by a man called Robert Coleman who published a songbook in 1923, that included the song made by the two sisters with a few new lyrics on top of the old lyrics and tune. which was eventually adapted into the birthday song that we all know today.

               As we can see there is a very extensive history concerning birthdays and the traditions it involves, although we may not know the exact answers to all of the origins at least now we have a slight idea. Like so many others I too will continue to celebrate my birthday and wish everyone the best with their own.  



Pawinder Manak, Bromley High School GDST