Why Do We Celebrate Birthdays?

July is a big month for my family. Both my parents, my grandma, my brother, and various cousins all have July birthdays. For my family, July is the biggest birthday month. We all feel that urge to mark the passing of time (even if it depresses us), and the birthday is the way many of us do it.

Our birthdays provide us with ways to mark our maturity, and offer measurable ways to assess the legality of engaging in certain acts, such as driving, drinking, and voting. But where did they start? Many cultures and religions celebrate birthdays (even though some religions and cultures don’t, they are in the minority).

Birthday Traditions

Some of the craziest birthday celebrations date back to ancient Rome. Parties and generous gifts were made on birthdays. Because of the excess seen on birthdays, many early Christians rejected the idea of celebrating birthdays. However, throughout the ages, that tradition changed. Many people celebrated the Saints’ days related to those they were named after. Nobility, however, began celebrating their birthdays in medieval times — even the Christian nobility. Now, of course, most Westerners, Christian or not, celebrate their birthdays with presents, cake, and parties.

In Judaism, birthdays are celebrated by many, although some rabbis dispute the practice. Significant birthdays in Jewish culture mark maturity with the bat mitzvah for 12-year-old girls (some sects celebrate it at the 13th birthday) and the bar mitzvah for 13-year-old boys. Secular traditions have sprung up around the religious rites of these special birthday, but at their core they began as religious observances.

Birthdays are in dispute amongst muslims as well. Some of the less conservative muslims recognize birthdays, and celebrate them — especially focusing on birthday celebrations for children.

Hindus celebrate birthdays a little differently than Westerners are familiar with. The birth anniversary is figured by looking at the day during the lunar or solar month of birth has the same asterism as the date of birth. Those males belonging to the brahmin caste might also receive a grand thread ceremony marking maturity at 12 or 13.

Many cultures recognize certain birthdays with coming of age rites. Cultures across the world, from Africa to the Pacific Islands, from the North Pole to the southernmost countries, have ways of identifying maturity — usually connected with age, and how many birthdays have passed. In Japan, the Coming of Age Day recognizes all those who have turned 20. A “debut” is celebrated in filipino culture for 18-year-old girls and 21-year-old boys. Some Hispanic countries celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday with a quinceanera celebration.

Birthday celebrations vary widely, and in here in the United States, there are a plethora of “important” birthdays. We like to mark turning 12, and there is often a “sweet 16” for girls. The age 16 is also significant in the United States because it’s when many of us can begin driving. We mark age 18 as adulthood, and the age 21 is often celebrated in the United States because it marks being able to legally purchase alcohol. These celebrations usually hark back to Roman celebrations of drunken parties.

What are your birthday traditions?

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