My birthday is coming up next month and that got me wondering when and why Americans started celebrating birthdays in the ways we do. The first thing that comes to mind for me when I think about my birthday was the disappointment I felt to discover that mine was too early to have a swim party in Kansas… too cold. But I think I did have a roller skating party once…maybe. I can’t really remember!
Research suggests that birthdays were once just another day until the 1880s. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that middle-class Americans began having special celebrations of their children’s birthdays, and not until the early 20th century that these celebrations became a nationwide tradition. In fact, “Happy Birthday to you” a song popular worldwide, is only about one hundred years old.
Historically, birthday celebrations were for rich people or national heroes. Americans celebrated George Washington’s birthday, but for everyone else, a birthday—if they even remembered the date—was just another day. The shift in the mid-19th century started with kids. The increased attention that began to be lavished on individual children as families started having fewer of them, may have led to a desire for special celebrations. Could that be because with industrialization, American children started being viewed less for their economic contributions and more for their emotional ones?
With America industrialization in the 19th century, the rituals and trappings of birthday parties that we think of as common today, became mainstream. The way we celebrate is a strange combination of ancient traditions. Cake can likely be traced back to ancient Roman birthday rites. The candles appear to come from aristocratic German birthday celebrations dating back several hundred years. But the expectation of gifts and cards is a product of good old Western consumerism. What comes to mind when you think of birthday cards? Hallmark!
Today, the idea of someone celebrating their birthday is considered normal, but in the decades after this tradition became common, some groups resisted it, saying that such celebrations were self-centered, materialistic, and turned kids into brats. Sure, there are plenty of American brats, but I don’t think it was a birthday party that did that to them…
Well, I’m no brat, I just like having a special day even at 68!
4 thoughts on “Why do we celebrate birthdays like we do?”
A huge Happy Birthday to you! We’re almost twins!
I love celebrating birthdays. (And I agree. I really don’t think a few birthday celebrations are going to produce brats!) 😉
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Thanks Diane! Are you an Aries too? Laura
Strange that I only remember having one birthday party (when I was eight). My other two parties, when I turned 50 and when I turned 60, were planned and paid for by me. When I turned 70, it was just another day. I do wonder if part of the reason birthday celebrations for children didn’t really catch on until more recently was because of infant and childhood mortality. It’s something to ponder. Alana ramblinwitham
Hello Alana! It’s funny that you should mention waiting to name babies for a while after birth. I thought of this old Chinese tradition after I finished this piece: In traditional China, a baby was not named until it was a month old. When the baby is finally at first month, a party is thrown where all the family is gathered…