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Why Do We Celebrate Birthdays?

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If you’re about to spend a few hundred dollars on a five-year-old’s birthday party, you might be asking yourself: Why, exactly, do we celebrate birthdays? Who started this extravagant tradition?

In our society today, we keep track of birthdays, and much of what a person can or cannot do is based on their age. For example, in the U.S., we attend Kindergarten at the age of five, legally drink alcohol at 21, and could run for president at 35. 

But it hasn’t always been this way. Here’s an overview of the history of why we celebrate birthdays. 

The historical evolution of birthdays 

The history of how birthdays likely evolved is fascinating. From the first historical record of a birthday over 4000 years ago to the balloons, pinatas, and birthday cake we celebrate with today, there have been considerable changes.

Generally speaking, birthdays evolved from celebrations of religious figures to celebrations of individuals. 

Here’s how that evolution took place:

Ancient celebrations of gods and goddesses

One of the earliest birthday celebrations in recorded history took place in 3000 BCE. 

There is a Biblical record of an Egyptian pharaoh’s birthday, where he held a feast for all of his officials. However, since pharaohs were considered mediators between the gods and mankind, it’s likely that this “birthday” was actually the date of his coronation.

Of course, this was a one-time celebration. But it does point pretty strongly to the Egyptians “inventing” birthdays.

Annual parties can be traced to ancient Rome and Greece. The Romans and Greeks used their calendars to track yearly festivals for their gods, where they offered gifts and partied in honor of these deities.

Christianity and the saints

Around the fourth century AD, Christians absorbed the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. The festival of Saturnalia honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, and took place in late December. To celebrate, the Romans played music, socialized, and gave each other gifts. 

As Christianity spread, Saturnalia became Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. To this day, Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus by giving gifts.

Catholics also celebrate name days, days of the year named after Catholic saints. If you shared a name with a saint, you would celebrate on that day. This is an excellent example of more individualized celebrations for people throughout the year.

Birthdays in America

Throughout history, especially in the last thousand years or so, it wasn’t uncommon for rulers or the rich to celebrate their birthdays. In America, we celebrated the birthdays of national heroes like George Washington, but birthdays for everyone haven’t been commonplace for long.

Annual birthday parties in America, especially for kids, started to emerge during Industrialization in the mid-1800s. 

Households had more reliable clocks and ways of telling time, and time-keeping became important for education and medicine. So, simply put, when age became more important, so did birthdays.

So that’s where birthdays started and evolved. But what about the rest of the stuff that goes along with birthday parties? 

Origins of birthday traditions

Why do today’s birthday parties incorporate cake, candles, and gifts? These traditions were also borrowed from history and other cultures.

Birthday cake

When the Greeks had festivals to honor their gods and goddesses, they made sacred cakes as unburnt offerings. They also made sweet desserts for other religious celebrations and private parties.

It’s pretty easy to see that since our tradition of birthday parties evolved from ancient Greek festivals, we still bake cakes as part of the celebration.

Blowing out candles

We’re going back to ancient Greece again. 

One of the goddesses honored annually with a festival was Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. A common symbol for Artemis was the moon. So, during her festival, the Greeks would make offerings of circular cakes lit with candles so they would glow like the moon.

It’s also worth noting that many ancient cultures believed smoke carried a person’s prayers. So it does make sense to blow out candles or make a wish, at a birthday party.

Birthday parties for kids

It seems extremely common today to have a birthday party for children. In fact, it’s much more popular to celebrate birthdays for kids. Adults have birthdays, too, but unless they’ve reached a significant age, huge parties are relatively rare.

Throughout history, though, birthday celebrations were usually for adults. Or at least that’s what we have records of.

So where did we get the idea of parties for kids?

In Germany in the 1700s, there was a tradition called Kinderfeste. On the morning of a child’s birthday, he or she would receive a cake with candles. 

Historically, this seems to be one of the first examples of children’s birthday parties.

Piñatas

If you’ve ever hit a piñata to get the prizes inside, you’ll be surprised by their origin. Or maybe not, since we’re once again going back to ancient times and celebrations to honor the gods.

One theory on the origin of piñatas involves the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs would honor the birth of their god Huitzilopochtli by filling a pot with treasures and breaking it open at the idol’s feet.

Other experts say the tradition of a piñata actually started in China, where hollow figures of animals were filled with seeds and split open. Marco Polo saw the practice and took it back to Europe, where it eventually traveled to the Americas.

Either origin story is fascinating when you consider the history behind hitting a hollow object for candy and small prizes.

Birthday presents

The practice of giving gifts could, like most other birthday traditions, also derive from ancient festivals, where the Greeks and Romans offered objects and other sacrifices to their gods and goddesses. 

But gift-giving might go back even further, to the very beginning of mankind, when we gave gifts as a universal symbol of affection and goodwill. And so naturally, as a species, we give birthday presents to our friends, family, and loved ones as they turn one year older.

When you need help with birthdays, holidays, and year-round giving, turn to giftster.com. You’ll get gifts right, every time, so there’s no limit to the goodwill you can spread.

Happy gifting!

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