Birthday is a special occasion which makes us realize our worth in the lives of the people around us. People make the effort of conveying their warm wishes and gracing the occasion with their presence. They also shower us with love through thoughtful birthday presents. Many cultures around the world celebrate birthdays with various traditions that symbolize their cultural practices. We all look forward to birthdays but how many of us are aware of the origin of birthday traditions? Very historians have come up with various theories which shed light and offer a glimpse of the gradual evolution of birthday celebrations in various corners of the world.
Birthday celebrations started with the advent of calendars
In prehistoric times, humans could not trace birthdays as there was no means of tracking time. They resorted to the moon and sun to track important events. Gradually, they started observing the cycles of the moon to mark the season changes. The repetition of these changes led to the invention of the first calendar which consequently served as an incredible tracking system of time and seasons. This enabled people to keep an account of birthdays and other significant milestones of life.
The Egyptians have the first birthday celebrations to their credit
According to biblical records, the first birthday celebrations date back to 3000 B.C.E. The Egyptians believed that the pharaohs were transformed into Gods as soon as they were crowned. For them, the coronation date held more value than the real birthday. The coronation date was regarded as the Pharaoh’s birth as God. This earliest birthday celebration in 3000 B.C.E. was believed to have been the coronation date.
The Greeks came up with moon-shaped cakes and added candles
The Greeks celebrated the births of their Gods and Goddesses.They made moon-shaped cakes to appease Artemis, the Lunar Goddess. To top it all, they added candles to the cake to send prayers and to replicate the radiance of the moon.
Birthdays of the common man were initiated by ancient Romans
Birthdays were exclusive to Gods and religious figures until the Romans started the birthday celebrations of friends and family. The men who turned 50 would be given a cake of grated, cheese, wheat flour and honey. But for them, common people only included the male population. Female birthday celebrations started only during the 12 th century. The ancient Romans started the concept of extravagant birthday celebrations, fiesting and gifting. They believed that evil spirits would be attracted to the birthday boy or girl especially on birthdays. Giving a gift was like a safety tool which would ward off evil spirits.
Birthdays were considered a pagan festival by the Catholics
Initially, Catholics believed birthdays to be celebrations of evil owing to the association with Pagan Gods and original sin. According to them, humans were born with ‘original sin’ after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Christians discarded this thought in the 4th century and began commemorating the birthday of Jesus or Christmas.
German bakers popularized birthday cakes
By the 18th century, birthday celebrations became popular in many countries. Germans started celebrating the birthdays of the kids. These celebrations were all about birthday cakes and candles. Every year, one candle was added to the cake in anticipation of another blissful year.
Industrial Revolution made sugary cakes easily available to the masses
Before the Industrial Revolution, sugary cakes were only available to the affluent class as the ingredients were expensive. The industrial revolution popularised the celebrations and made the ingredients more accessible. Bakeries started offering pre-made cakes at reasonable prices owing to mass production.
The legend of the Birthday song
Today, birthdays are incomplete without the famous birthday song. Two sisters called Mildred J.Hill and Mildred J. Hill, who worked as teachers in a school, wrote a song called ‘Good morning to all’ for the students in 1983. The song created quite a buzz among the people. In 1924, Robert Colemon published a songbook which featured the same song with the same tune and also added a few extra lyrics. This song is called ‘The Birthday Song’ and has a wide popularity today.
Birthdays were celebrated according to lunar day
In present times, birthdays are celebrated in every part of the world in adherence to the English calendar. But in India, birthdays were celebrated as per the tithi or lunar day as per the Hindu almanac in the yesteryears. But according to the Hindu traditions, celebrating birthdays as per tithi had a special spiritual significance. Going by the Vedic timekeeping, a tithi is a duration of two faces of the moon that can be seen from the earth. Experts believed that good wishes and blessings are highly effective especially on the tithi of birth. It helps us combat with obstacles in our lives and helps us to attain spiritual awakening. Birthday celebrations were different in Satyayug, Tretayug and Dwaparyug. Spiritually evolved people would be called to bless a child on his first birthday. They would wave a lit lamp in front of the birthday boy or girl which was called aukshan. They would also shower rice grains smeared with saffron in various parts of the body thereby activating chakras in those areas. This ritual was called akshata.
Contemporary Birthday Traditions
Today, birthday celebrations in India is a unique amalgamation of western practices and Hindu rituals. While cake cutting, feasting, the quintessential ‘Happy Birthday’ song are integral parts of Indian birthday celebrations, various traditions of yore continue to exist. Early morning visit to temples, aarti, applying tika on the birthday boy or girl’s forehead, sweet treats, touching the feet of the elders are some of the common traditions. On the child’s first birthday, the head is shaved off. Apart from these rituals, cake cutting, birthday parties and exchange of gifts are integral parts of the birthday celebrations.
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