Saturday, May 5, 2007

Happy Birthday

This past week I celebrated my birthday. Thank you for being here and celebrating it with me.

Birthday celebrations have existed since ancient times, some time after the first calendars were created. The pagans believed that people were susceptible to evil spirits when one approached a change in his life. To ward off evil spirits, family members and friends brought well wishes. If someone brought a gift, it was considered especially lucky.

Initially, only so-called important people such as royalty and the wealthy had birthday celebrations. Some historians believe this is how the wearing of birthday crowns originated. Eventually children were included in birthday celebrations. The first ones documented were in Germany and were called Kinderfeste.

In almost every corner of the world, birthday traditions exist in one form or another. In Vietnam, they do not acknowledge the specific day they were born. Instead, everyone celebrated their birthdays on New Year’s Day (Tet). On the morning of Tet, parents gave their children a red envelope containing li xi, or “lucky money.” In Brazil and Italy the birthday child gets his ear pulled for every year of their life. The Irish have a variation called “birthday bumps,” where the child is turned upside down and bumped on the ground for good luck. Thankfully, the tradition morphed into the less painful (depending on who’s giving them) “birthday spanks.”

Cakes of various forms exist in almost every culture. In Germany candles atop a birthday cake were lit at sunrise and burned for an entire day. At sunset, everyone gathered to sing a “happy birthday” song. Then the celebrant blew out all the candles and made a wish. If all the candles were extinguished in one breath, the wish would come true. Incidentally, the American version of “Happy Birthday” was written by a pair of sisters in 1883.

When I was a little girl, my mother made a fuss over birthday parties. She invited the kids from the neighborhood, some with whom I rarely played. We wore foil hats and blew on noisemakers. We played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. My mother always baked a cake from scratch. There’s a picture of me holding up one of the last cakes she made. My name was squiggled in blue frosting. “Happy Birthday” slanted across the top of the cake and the last few letters squeezed together to fit. The birthday parties stopped when she left us. Our birthdays were hardly acknowledged afterward. Every year my father did buy a cake from a local bakery, but we rarely sat together to eat it. I wrote an essay about another memorable birthday, called "Surprise Party," which was published in A Cup of Comfort for Friends.

Those are my birthday memories. Now it’s your turn. Freewrite about the birthday celebrations you remember. Begin with the earliest one. Did you celebrate birthdays at all? With parties? Who was invited? Who came to them? What games did you play? Describe the cake, the food, any special gifts. Write about the birthday celebrations you attended. Note the location, people, the conversations, how everyone dressed. For a variation of this exercise, create the ultimate birthday bash. If there were no limitations, who or what would be at your party? Where would it be? As you write, throw yourself into the celebration. You deserve it.


Arcadian said...

I feel that you are correct in saying that you were able from these many surrogate mothers to learn about love. Of course, I'm sorry to read about your abandonment. Its one of the worst things that can happen to a child. Your abillity to describe it all succinctly made it even more deeply touching- the way a child will shrug when they reveal a deeply painful experience. This is such a moving account.

Rita Marie Keller said...

Arcadian, thank you so much for taking the time to read. What can I say, except I appreciate your kind words.