Perhaps the chill promise of fall is what makes May through August very busy birthday months in my family. I’m not sure. I just know ’tis so.
The celebration of birthdays has changed much in the course of history. In fact, with the advent of Christianity, birthday celebrations were frowned upon, considered a residual of paganism.
Until the inception of the Egyptian calendar, mankind understood time only in relation to the rising and setting of the sun and the changing of the season. A vague awareness of numeric aging emerged as a result. A person’s age would be measured in accordance with the season within which he or she was born or, in Native American cultures, under which moon. (If you’re interested in those moon names and what they mean, here’s a great link: http://www.farmersalmanac.com/full-moon-names/)
The Egyptian Calendar gained importance with the rising belief in astrology, fortune-telling, and other forms of mysticism where date and time of birth were pivotal. Since the horoscopes of ruling monarchs were thought to effect all of society, feasts, parades, even circuses were part of the ruler’s birthday celebration.
Of course, because these celebrations were rooted in paganism, Christianity eschewed them. In their place, especially in the early centuries A.D., Name Days or Saints Days were used to mark birth. It was not unusual for a child to bear the name of the saint celebrated when he or she entered the world. As a result, many of the common names we use today, David, Jason, Sarah, Rachel for example, were not used in Christian Europe.
The use of saint’s names is still prevalent in some countries. In fact, I have a dear friend of Cuban birth who bears a name she hates because the name her mother chose wasn’t a saint’s name. The saint’s name is her first name. Mother’s choice is her middle name and the name by which she is known.
Many of the traditions we still use to celebrate birthdays have their origin in pagan superstition: The round cake, a symbol of the Greek goddess, Artemis, Goddess of the Moon. The candles, to represent the moon’s glow, to ward off evil spirits thought to be more harmful during changes in a human life, or to carry prayers (or birthday wishes!) on their smoke to whatever gods or goddesses populated the prevelant theology. Noisy celebrations, surrounding a person with friends and family, the occasional gift (it was considered a good omen if someone thought to honor the celebrant with a gift), and joyful good wishes also provided protection, scaring off hobgoblins and demons.
Throughout most of medieval history, Saint or Name Days remained the norm. When birthdays were celebrated, they were the province of adults and primarily royal or noble adults—at least until about 1655 when the Germans instituted Kinderfeste. Kinderfeste is, literally, Children’s Festival. Kinderfeste was the precursor to children’s birthday parties.
It was during the Restoration (1660-1689) the celebration of birthdays became more popular. And, as always, the lower social classes soon began to emulate their more elevated brethren, bringing birthday celebrations from the highest echelons to the lowest hovels until, today, we tend to assume human birthdays have always been cause for revelry.
So to all my friends and family celebrating their special days in the coming months, be grateful you don’t have to bear the saint’s name associated with your day. Some of those names are Matthias, Dunstan, Bede, Augustine, Germanus, Theodosia, Cyr, Irenaeus, Sixtus, Hippolytus, Synphorianus, Zephryinus . . . Okay. You get the idea.
May the day of your birth be celebrated with true joy, and the year that follows be wonder-full!