Due to my crappy memory for anything besides Simpsons quotes and sports statistics, lots of my childhood memories come from parental second-hand stories. My dad tells embarrassing scatological stories of my first few years with an uncontrolled bladder and my mom mostly fills in details from questions about my elementary wanderings. One story that can be corroborated was around my 5th or 6th b-day. During the common “Happy Birthday” song, I burst into tears. On a grainy home video, I’m sitting at the head of the table in a darkened room with a little conical hat, fires burning atop my sweet cake, family illuminated in shadows performing that droning incantation and you can see it coming. My face drops and I lose it. Even as a tiny kid I didn’t like that song.
Here’s an unpopular opinion: I don’t like birthdays. Look, it’s a crotchety, curmudgeonly, cantankerous attitude, I know, but birthday parties seem so silly, especially for adults. Everybody, today’s my birthday, so make sure you wish me a happy one; we’ll be sharing a cake together after lunch, you’re not required to come, but if you don’t you’ll be outcast and no longer privy to office gossip, better to just come, sing the song, eat the cake. It’s such an infantilizing sentence, “It’s my birthday!”
Birthdays lead to disappointment, and the soul of narrative is conflict. In Sixteen Candles, the whole movie involves Samantha being aggrieved that nobody remembered her birthday. Lesley Gore cries, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.” Carrie Bradshaw has a depressing 35th birthday dinner where nobody attends. Robin Williams dances on tables and rents a petting zoo in Mrs. Doubtfire which leads to divorce. Jim Carrey always forgets his son’s birthday in Liar Liar prompting little bowl-coifed Max to make a birthday wish that his dad could never lie (which is ruinous for a lawyer). The toys in Toy Story are constantly terrified of birthdays and being replaced by Buzz Lightyear types. Maybe there are some happy birthdays in pop culture, but the only one I know is Michael Jackson and Bart Simpson singing a catchy song to Lisa for her birthday, which immediately becomes suspicious when Michael says he’s working on a new song, alone, in a young boy’s room.
I wonder when your date of birth became a day to request, nay require, others to follow your whims and whimsy. Can you imagine Abe Lincoln in his meager log cabin asking his poor farmer father if they can go to the equivalent of a Chuck E. Cheese—maybe some sort of homemade milk & cheese market—for his big 13th year jamboree? Or suppose one of the ancient Spartan children inquiring about having red velvet instead of chocolate cake this year before he’s slapped in the face and pushed out the door for his military training?
What do we know about birthdays? Jesus has the most famous of them all, Christmas, which was possibly developed by early Christians to arrogate the pagan Saturnalia celebration. How could you commemorate a birthday before calendars? The modern Gregorian calendar started in 1582 but wasn’t accepted in England until 200 years later. How to celebrate the big day? The birthday cake is an 18th century invention from Germany for “kinderfeste” (kid party). Yet for centuries, only the wealthy could afford the sugar and spice to bake a cake for their kids. And that goofy birthday song was a rip-off from a school welcome song a hundred years ago.
My guess is the modern birthday party with the hats, streamers, presents, songs and games starts when America became American, i.e. in the years following WW2. What is more American than suburbs, cars, highways, ubiquitous commercialism and consumption—prerequisites for a party culture. America was pretty isolationist before the 20th century. We were a nation of immigrants (both free and forced) who brought their own customs that gradually assimilated American flavors. As the horrors of a depression and two world wars faded and income rose, the American “kinder” benefitted as parents from those earlier struggles sought to indulge their children.
Honestly, it is difficult to profess a dislike of something seemingly so organic and cheerful as a birthday. I think it is simply the performance of a birthday that bothers me. I hate prescriptions for fun. This is why I also dislike New Year’s Eve and weddings (which coincidentally have their own compulsory songs (Auld Lang Syne and The Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout, respectively). Hey, it’s a new year so we drink and sing and stay up late; it’s a white dress and rings and perfunctory dancing. I get it, it’s fun, but there is a lot of pressure to have fun! If you look like you’re not utterly captivated by the merriment, someone super-cheery (sometimes from alcohol or sometimes inherently sunny and therefore suspect (who can be happy all the time?)) will be there to remind you, “It’s New Year’s or It’s a wedding—smile!”
Tomorrow is my 40th birthday. I remember turning 31 after one month in Korea, 30 at Medieval Times in Dallas, 21 in a friend’s apartment and 12 in Valley Forge Park. Birthdays, despite all the silly pomp, don’t last too long and give a chance to think about where you’ve been and aspire to be. I hope to eat my favorite pizza, have some ice cream and try to be grateful for life’s blessings. That’s probably what a birthday should be. Those lucky enough to celebrate with cake and free enough to sing silly songs should do so, then take a moment to appreciate all those who helped you reach this point. The string of strangers, friends, co-workers, pets, and family that produce a personality should be celebrated with you. I take so many things too seriously, over-thinking, worrying, analyzing (evidenced by this essay and almost everything else on this website). Maybe that’s the point of the silly “Happy Birthday” song, to allow a moment, ever so brief, in our ever so brief life to remember the simple joy of being grateful for others and proud of yourself.