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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Birthday Celebrations

Family traditions around birthday celebrations are a special kind of folklore that can be very localised. People may celebrate with particular food or family customs. In our family, if a birthday is a 'school day', presents are opened after school, usually once everyone is home. As in many families, a cake is an important part of the celebration of a birthday, sometimes baked by some of us, sometimes bought. We tend to only do candles on the cake for kids' parties, not family celebrations.

I personally tend to view my birthday a bit like New Year, as a natural time for looking backwards and forwards and checking how far I've come. This works particularly well for me as my birthday falls in May, so a good time for measuring progress on New Year resolutions and the like. It's also nearly the end of the school year cycle (they're sitting their exams in the next few weeks), so the end-of-a-cycle thing works professionally too, and this is a time we're all naturally talking about how we'll change things for next year.

It's interesting how birthdays tend to cluster. For us, this is a busy week, with my birthday yesterday and my husband's to come on Saturday. We often have a joint celebration and sometimes joint gifts (films, music and edible goodies we like, but here's a hint: domestic-themed joint presents are not so loved!). The kids' birthdays aren't far apart either, being 29th September and 10th October. Oh, how I remember the older one's 5th birthday party when the little one was 11 days old and I was somewhat tired...

Cakes with candles are now common to many industrialised cultures, but did you know that in Japan and China, for example, it was traditional to celebrate everyone's birthday at the New Year? And that in many African cultures, individual birthdays aren't particularly marked? In that context, coming-of-age rites are important at specific milestone ages.

Do you mark birthdays in a way that is particular to you? Do you know of interesting traditions to celebrate birthdays?


  1. Hi Beth,

    Very interesting post. You are right, birthdays do tend to cluster. My hubby's birthday is nine days after mine, and mine is two weeks after Trainboy's.
    We don't really have any specific traditions apart from opening our pressies first thing in the morning (we get up a bit earlier) but we do also have to have cake and candles in the evening, and if it is weekend then we normally throw a party. My birthday is the day before Halloween and hubby's is around Bonfire night and hey, we don't need an excuse for Trainboy although I think this year we'll go to an activity centre for it!
    Hope you enjoyed your presents and cake.

  2. This was really interesting to see how others celebrate birthdays. One of our family traditions is to sing Happy Birthday really loud and long and out of tune. It sounds terrible and everyone loves it!


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