A granddaughter will turn two in a few days. In preparation, my daughter (her aunt) called my son (the dad) to let him know a present was on the way. The birthday gift overheard the conversation, smiled and said, “I wait for present!”
First birthday? You’re oblivious. Mom and dad will have a party, but you won’t understand or remember it. A year later you’ll be up to speed. For the past month or so, everyone’s been reminding you, “It’s almost your birthday!” They’ve been asking, “How old will you be? Grown-ups have helped you master the art of hold up two fingers and proudly saying, “Two.” And somehow you’ve caught on to the reality that there will be presents. You’ve become a little consumer.
Big birthday celebrations every year for every child are common now. Some people spend a whole week observing their birthday. When did birthday celebrations begin?
To my surprise, the birthday celebration is a recent idea in the United States, from the mid-nineteenth century.1 Before that, birthdays were for the rich or the nobility. Everyone knew when George Washington’s birthday was. For everyone else, the day passed unnoticed.
The change came with industrialization. With clocks on the wall and watches in their pockets, people became more aware of time. Trains and streetcars ran on schedules and workers punched in and out of their factory shifts. Sensitive to the passage of time, students were separated by grades. Doctors treated older patients differently. Talk of being on time, ahead of time, and behind the times entered our conversations. Age – and birthdays – became significant.
Cake dates back to the Roman empire. Candles are a German tradition. Birthday gifts grew out of old fashioned western capitalism.
It’s a mixed bag. Little ones can’t wait for their next birthday. Some adults stop celebrating as if ignoring the date will prevent aging. My birthday is clustered with a daughter and two granddaughters in July, so it’s always fun. Giant cake for four? Sweet! Four cakes? Even sweeter.