The Hubbub Behind “Happy Birthday”

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / barneyboogles

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / barneyboogles

Hey, what is up with this birthday thing?

Birthdays make less sense to me with each passing year. When you’re a kid, you LIVE for birthdays. You get gifts, you do the old bring-cupcakes-into-school-for-the-big-“sing-to”-thing, and Grandma slips a real $20 bill into a card that has clowns and zoo animals on the front long after you turn 10. Your friends put you through the “spanking machine” on the playground—good times, good memories, good birthdays.

But somewhere around age 13, you start to feel sort of unsettled about telling people about your birthday. When you’re a kid, it’s cool because your family knows it’s YOUR day, but later you start to feel like it shouldn’t be a big deal. But then you still want something made of it from the new people in your group. But later you actually begin to avoid the attention again. Clearly we are conflicted on this topic.

Baffling Rituals

But having people KNOW it’s your birthday must still be important because as adults we have other strange rituals for birthdays.

For example, as a new employee you walk into work on the day of your birthday, but no one knows that. At some point you just happen to mention it at lunch, and here are the guaranteed responses:

  1. “It’s your birthday? Why didn’t you say something?” (What in the world were you supposed to say and when for God’s sake?)
  2.  “Today? Well, Happy Birthday!” (Now that I know it is officially your birthday, I will generously give you these two words: “Happy Birthday.”)

Or how about the response of an acquaintance: “Why didn’t you say something?” When were you supposed to announce this revelation–in the Monday morning staff announcements? “And one final thing, people: Monday is my birthday. Thought you’d all want to know. Have a nice day.”

Then there’s the inevitable reply: “I wish I had known. I would’ve bought you something.” How do you respond to that one? “Well, you can shop later today and just present me with a gift tomorrow morning. I don’t mind that it’s late.”

A Day To Remember

Why do we sometimes feel guilty when we fail to remember the day another person was born—especially a relative stranger? If we miss the birthday of a spouse or child or parent, that’s a little rude, but a co-worker? Why would we be responsible for that information?

But even with relatives—what we’re really celebrating is that another year has passed and that loved one didn’t die. Hurray? I just don’t see the puffed-up significance of this event.

Some men use a birthday as the occasion to propose marriage. Some families use it in order to pressure the man to propose marriage. “You’re not going to let another birthday pass without a ring for her, are you? You’re going to lose that girl!”

Then there’s the illusion that nothing should go wrong on your birthday. “I can’t believe it’s raining on my birthday. Figures!”

Weather seems to be a real factor for birthdays. “Look what a beautiful day I have for my birthday. The sun is shining, and the skies are so blue….” (God must have awoken that morning and said, “Peter, isn’t today Eddie’s 37th birthday? Let the sun shine all day.”

Familiar Scenarios

Then there’s the traditional singing of the birthday song–at work. Who came up with this brilliant idea? Someone has hidden the cake, the victim has been called away, and upon his or her return, the “Surprise” ensues. This event is followed by a 2-hour discussion of how the “surprisers” devised their secret plot. “Yeah, I thought it was rather weird when Barbara from accounting asked to see me. I haven’t spoken to her in 11 years.”

“Well, we got you!”

“You got me.”

(What are we getting again?)

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