Traditional American birthday cake.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The time-honored tradition of celebrating the anniversary of the day a person was brought into this world has made a profound impact on our culture.
Let’s say a young lad named Dale was born on July 12th in Cleveland, Ohio. Every year he gets to look forward to the annual birthday cake adorned with the proper amount of candles for each 365-day cycle he’s been kicking dirt here on Earth. After everyone staring at him stops singing the special song in his honor, he makes his coveted annual birthday wish and blows out the candles.
During the first few parties, he may look at the folks around him, wondering what all the fuss is about, but as he gets older, the parties turn more social with other kids around his age joining the festivities around him. Piñatas are soon replaced with alcohol, and toys are replaced by more age-appropriate gifts. Dale will be able to enjoy this day surrounded by friends and family until he gets too old to remember what all the fuss is about. In Cleveland and the rest of the United States, this is the status quo for birthdays, but in other areas of the world, July 12th will be celebrated quite differently.
If Dale was born along the Atlantic side of Canada – where he would consider bacon to be ham, hockey to be the cat’s pajamas, and Timmy Hortons to be the best establishment this side of the Yukon – he would also enjoy the typical birthday party with presents and sweeties. However, he would also be graced with a nice supply of grease to the nose. Friends or family members would rub grease all over this area of Dale’s face in order to make him too slippery for bad luck to strike. Most believe the Scots originated this tradition, but I suspect it could also be a guerrilla marketing technique from Neutrogena to boost post-birthday sales.
Perhaps Dale was born in China. Traditionally, this is an area of the world where birthdays are not as big of a celebration for most of people’s lives. Only newborns and the elderly receive the pleasure of a recognized birthday. Thirty days after our young, traditionally raised Chinese Dale is born, friends and family members will gather at the newborn’s house where the parents will greet their guests with a present. This will vary from family to family, but the most common gift is an egg that is dyed red – the color that signifies happiness in Chinese culture. The guests will then give presents to the baby that are essential to the well-being of Dale’s upbringing, such as food and money. Unfortunately, Tickle-Me Elmos are not counted as essential in this area of the world, despite their being the color of happiness.
It won’t be for another 60 years before Chinese Dale is able to celebrate another birthday party. During that time, another year on Earth does not constitute a reason to receive special attention. Once he turns 60, his children throw a daylong party signifying one complete life cycle. At age 61, a new cycle begins. This same party then happens once every ten years with each subsequent party getting bigger in celebration. Chinese Dale’s 100th birthday might look something like the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.
Moving west across the globe and stopping in Deutschland, our hero is born. German Dale’s birthday is marked at sunrise when a member of his family lights candles on top of a birthday cake. Just as we do in the U.S., the number of candles signifies Dale’s age plus an additional candle for good luck. Unlike the U.S., the candles are left burning until the evening, when German Dale can blow them out so everyone can enjoy a nice piece of waxy cake.
These traditions continue for German Dale until he turns 30. If he is unfortunate enough to be single at this age, he must sweep the steps of city hall. His friends will watch with joy and as soon as the steps appear to be clean, they will throw more trash onto the stairs for him to sweep. This continues for some time, but Dale can be saved if a member of the opposite sex gives him a kiss. At this time, he can go off to drink a hefeweizen or seven.
Throughout the world, birthdays tend to be joyous occasions that include traditions that are enjoyable for everyone involved. Things would be a little different from what we regard as typical birthday rituals if Dale happened to belong to the Maasai of different parts of Africa. Once he turns 13, he must endure different rites of passage in order to be considered a man. At this time, he must leave his parents’ home for about three months so he can be taught to become a warrior by the tribe’s elders. After this period is over, the birthday is concluded with a qualified member of the tribe circumcising Dale at sunrise. This marks his official transformation into a warrior. There is no anesthesia used and if he cries out during the procedure, it is looked upon as a sign of weakness and can be shunned by the rest of the community. Naturally, as awful as this might sounds to some, the Maasai accept this process as it is deeply ingrained in their culture.
No matter where Dale finds himself as he opens his eyes for the first time, July 12th will always mean something to him. The traditions throughout the globe can vary drastically, but it is an overall human tradition to mark the day he was brought onto our little planet in some fashion or another. Whether the worst thing he has to deal with is sweeping stairs, keeping a straight face through a circumcision, or having a hangover on the following day, the celebration of his birth will be part of his life until there aren’t any more years to acknowledge.