Tour Birthday Traditions

By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Omer Wazir.

“They got me good for my birthday,” wrote New York Knicks star player Stephon Marbury on his Weblio page in February of 2014. “Held me down and made me take that cake!”

Marbury, who was living in China at the time, posted several photos along with the bizarre exclamation depicting friends restraining him while a gigantic cake was smashed into his unprotected face. But far from feeling assaulted or, at the very least, annoyed, the basketball star appeared happy to play along.

The cake to the face birthday tradition actually hails from neither China nor New York (where Marbury is from), but from Mexico. There, the birthday girl or boy has to hide their hands behind their back and try to take a bite of cake while their face is pushed into it by guests chanting “mordida” (bribe).

That manifestation may seem odd, but honoring a person’s day of birth with some form of shenanigans dates back to antiquity. The exact origin of the tradition isn’t known, but scholars claim that the first evidence is the Bible’s mention of Egyptian pharaohs’ “birthdays” in 3,000 BCE. While the term might have actually meant the kings’ coronations, the annual practice still caught on for other royals.

Centuries later, Roman commoners became enlightened by the idea that having a you-themed festival once a year was pretty cool. As a result, the celebratory tradition opened up to those not considered demi-Gods.

Today there are as many birthday traditions as there are cultures in the world. Some are clearly linked–like Mexico’s cake to the face and the USA’s first birthday cake smashing tradition–others symbolize good health and prosperity, but several are just plain mean.

Photo courtesy of Don Goulart.

In Canada they reserve the cake for eating and instead hold down the birthday boy or girl for a quick smear of butter or margarine underneath the nose. The idea is to make their face so slippery that bad luck and negativity can’t get in.

As for Hungary, if it’s your birthday you can expect to have your ear lobes yanked, but not out of jealousy over your presents. As your ear is pulled a little rhyme is recited that translates to “God Bless you and may your ears reach your ankles.” The underlying idea is that each year, others will stretch out your ears a little more in the hopes that you’ll live so long they’ll reach the floor.

In the UK friends grab the arms and legs of the birthday kid, hoist them into the air, then quickly lower them again in a “bump.” You get one bump for every year you’ve lived. Apparently the tradition is especially alive and well at grade schools in the UK, so kids warn not to announce your birthday unless you are ready to get bumped.

Those light bumps are nothing compared to a birthday tradition emerging in Lucerne, Switzerland. As of 2012, some parents began hiring an evil clown to follow and torment the birthday kid for a full week, sending them scary text messages and stalking them from the shadows. The fright fest culminates in the evil clown surprising the birthday girl or boy with a pie to the face “when they least expect it.”

The Dutch traditionally celebrate not just the person whose birthday it is, but the entire family as well. If you’re attending a Dutch birthday party don’t expect drinking games and dancing, but rather a large circle of chairs for everyone to sit in while drinking tea. Upon arrival, each invitee must acknowledge the guest of honor and their kin, tailoring their congratulations to each specific family member’s role in the birthday person’s life. For example, non-family members will say “congratulations on your son” to the mother, or, “congratulations on your husband,” to the wife.

Though they may differ in style, every culture’s rich history of birthday traditions has one important factor in common: celebration.

After all, science shows birthdays are good for your health–people who have more of them live longer.