Birthdays have been celebrated as special occasions for thousands of years, particularly the “coming of age” that we all experience around our landmark birthdays such as our 18th, 21st and 40th years. But where did all of the traditions that reinforce these personal celebrations actually come from and how have they evolved over the years?
Giving birthday cards and gifts
An almost global tradition, giving the guest of honour a card or gift not only shows appreciation but helps them feel loved on their big day. Birthday cards have been a cornerstone of birthday celebrations for decades now and while the cynical amongst you might scoff at the idea, they are a sentimental keepsake that millions of us truly treasure. It’s a physical display of affection that’s subtle and yet incredibly personal and choosing the right birthday card can make the person you care about truly happy. It’s also ideal for letting people you can’t see physically know that you still care, which has become particularly relevant over the last 18 months.
How many times have you been “given the birthday bumps” against your will? While you might feel this is one global birthday tradition that has been pulled out of thin air as an excuse for friends and relatives to take out their aggressions on the birthday boy or girl, there’s actually a lot of history behind birthday beatings. In Brazil and Jamaica, it’s common for the celebrants to have flour thrown in their faces and in the US there are the birthday pinches to contend with. In some European countries, meanwhile, such as Italy, it’s customary to tug the ears of the birthday boy or girl.
Hitting a brightly decorated Piñata filled with candy until it breaks is very popular among children across the world these days. However, it’s a custom that has its roots in Latin America. The history of the Piñata is thought, however, to have actually started in Asia. It was the explorer Marco Polo who is believed to have taken the Chinese custom back to Spain in the 14th century. The original custom was of creating fake cows with coloured paper at the new year and then bashing them with sticks to release seeds and bring forth good luck for the coming 12 months. Obviously, this evolved into donkeys and sweets over the years, which is much more fun.
The 16th, 18th and 21st are usually the most important birthdays to those in the UK and the US but in Nigeria, it’s the 1st, 10th and 15th birthdays that hold that honour. Indeed, there’s also the “quinceañera” in Latin American cultures that is celebrated on a girls’ 15th birthday and in Germany, there’s a tradition that states men who are still single at 30 must dress in drag and parade around town looking for a virgin to kiss. Whoever said we were the only odd ones?