Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Happy Birthday Birthdays

by | July 28, 2011 | 3 comments

When I began participating on this blog, I was asked to pick a day for my entry each month. I picked the 28th because July 28th is my birthday. How could I forget the 28th? With this memory trigger and the several reminder alerts handily provided by the blog, remembering should be assured, right?

Not necessarily. Here I am at 10 AM CDT preparing my entry which should have been posted at midnight. This time, I blame procrastination more than forgetfulness, but the fact that today I am another year older might have contributed a tiny bit.

Photo Courtesy of Photo Bucket

In honor of the day, I thought I’d research the origin of birthday celebrations to share with you. With the importance we attach to the date in our culture (I know two relationships that shattered when he forgot her birthday–is it ever the other way around?) it’s not as long a history as I expected.

Before the invention of calendars, ancient people marked time by the moon and the changing seasons. Birthdays, if they were noted at all, were commemorated for religious figures like the Greek gods, Buddah, or Christ, dignitaries like Pharoah, or rich people. Who else had the motivation or means to recall the actual day?

Among the common people an exact date might not have been as notable. However, a time was set aside to ward off evil spirits that were thought to gather closer at significant changes in life like turning a year older. Visiting guests, burning candles, the giving of gifts, noisemakers, even spankings were all believed to discourage demons from coming near at these vulnerable times. Group celebrations often occurred on common days associated with the lunar cycle. Alternately, the day chosen was associated with the god or protective spirit thought to have attended the birth.

The pagan and superstitious aspects of such celebrations presented other challenges to the early Christian Church which condemned them. They encouraged celebrating Name day on the feast day of the saint for whom the child was named.

When calendars came into regular use and it became possible to track specific dates annually, the “pagan” practices coalesced into the birthday customs we cherish today. Historians cite a European origin and Western birthdays have similarities in many countries of Europe and North America. The Germans receive the credit for children’s birthday parties. (kinderfeste)  Birthday cakes came down from the Greek lunar cakes decorated with candles to simulate the moon’s light. These two customs came together when the Germans put candles on their birthday cakes (Geburtstagorten) to represent the light of life and made wishes on them. The smoke was thought to carry the wishes to Heaven. Blowing all the candles out at once brought good luck.

The wearing of paper crowns came from the tradition of honoring royal birthdays. The sending of cards started in England about a hundred years ago. Of course, they are a vehicle for carrying the greetings and good wishes of earlier times. Pinning the Tail on the Donkey and breaking the Pinata both involve blindfolds said to be a nod to the notion that the celebrant is blind to the events of the year to come. The birthday spanking with a whack for each year with one to grow on, be happy on etc. was said to chase away bad luck and “soften  the body for the grave.” An American pair, Mildred and Patty Hill contributed the melody for the Happy Birthday to You” in 1893. The original lyrics were “good morning to all.” The song with the birthday lyrics appeared in print together in 1924. (Interesting information on the controversial copyrights of the song appears in its Wikipedia entry)

So whether you are young enough to look forward to each birthday or old enough to dread and deny them, birthdays come to you each year. Here’s hoping yours is a happy one whenever it occurs.

BIO: Barbara Scott is the author of several romances including Cast a Pale Shadow, Haunts of the Heart, and Listen with Your Heart. Her most recent West of Heaven earned the following quote from Romancing the Book: “Barbara Scott blends the perfect amount of suspense, romance, history, and humor into a wonderfully engaging novel. I definitely recommend this novel with 4 stars (Lovely Rose!) and two thumbs up! “


  1. mmccall0911

    What a wonderful post on the origin of birthday celebrations! and Happy birthday to you. One of my pet peeves is people referring to "months" rather than "moons" in early historicals, so I hope this info get out to all our members writing in the earlier time periods,

  2. Barbara Scott

    Thank you, Mary. I first thought my topic was too trivial for this blog, but I decided it's often the trivial that adds spice to our stories.

  3. Anna Kathryn Lanier

    Barbara, that's why I picked the 19th to blog on….my birthday is March 19th. Great post. Thanks for sharing the info with us.



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