Birthday is a recent invention: since we celebrate our birth

The history of birthday (lesser also known as birthday, literally “relating to birth”) begins in the ancient world. The anniversary of celebrate the anniversary of your birth it was present in many civilizations, but it disappeared for religious reasons after the advent of Christianity and it reappeared only at the beginning of the modern age, spreading first among the aristocrats and then among the rest of the population. In the’nineteenth century the celebration has become popular in all Western countries and have become established numerous customs, primarily the use of candles and the song “Happy Birthday”. In the rest of the world, however, the birthday celebration is less common.

  • 1The origin of the Birthday, a story that began in antiquity
  • 2The disappearance of the birthday in the Middle Ages
  • 3The rebirth of the birthday in the West
  • 4Birthday in the rest of the world
  • 5Birthday traditions

The origin of the Birthday, a story that began in antiquity

Birthday was celebrated in many ancient civilizations. According to some studies, the first people to recognize it as an anniversary worthy of celebration were the Sumerians. It is also certain that the birthday was celebrated in the Greco-Roman world, in the Persian empire, in the Egypt of the Pharaohs and, albeit with a different meaning, in the kingdom of Israel. We must not think, of course, of a celebration similar to the current one and widespread throughout the population: most likely, the custom of celebrating birthdays only involved wealthy citizens.

The disappearance of the birthday in the Middle Ages

With the advent of Christianity, the custom of celebrating the birthday disappeared. The Fathers of the Church condemned the celebration, considering it anpagan customalso because for the Christian religion man is born stained by original sin and there is no reason to celebrate its birth.

Adam and Eve commit the original sin (facade of Orvieto cathedral) (credits Luca Aless)

The Church only recognized the celebration ofthe feast of the saint you are named after, because it commemorated the saints and martyrs. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages only people of culture knew their date of birth, while other inhabitants often ignored not only the day, but even the year in which they were born. Even in the Middle Ages, however, there were civilizations in which birthdays were celebrated, including the Mongolian one.

The rebirth of the birthday in the West

In Europe, attitudes towards one’s birthplace began to change during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. Interest in knowing the date of birth, but not yet in celebrating the birthday, is attested for the first time in 14th century and spread more in the following centuries. At the basis of the change was the profound cultural upheaval caused by Humanism and the Renaissance, which increased attention to the human being and to earthly life, considered worthy of interest and not just a “transit” phase awaiting eternal life. Furthermore, in the countries of central-northern Europe the Protestant Reformationby abolishing the cult of saints, caused the name day to lose its value.

Around the 15th century, birthday celebrations became established in some aristocratic families Europeans and slowly reached the entire population. In the nineteenth century the custom of celebrating birthdays spread to the entire population of Western countriesgradually taking on forms similar to the current one.

Early twentieth century birthday

Birthday in the rest of the world

Outside the Western world the custom of celebrating birthdays is less popular. In the Islamic countries the celebration is opposed by religious leaders, although even among Muslims, particularly those living in the West, the practice of celebrating one’s birth is not uncommon. In many areas of South of the world, like sub-Saharan Africa, the celebration of birthdays is rather rare and some citizens are unaware of their date of birth, also due to the poor functioning of the registry offices. Similarly, birthday is not popular in China.

Birthday traditions

In the West, various traditions are associated with the birthday celebration. The most popular are the cake with candles and the song “Happy Birthday”.

The first traces of the custom of preparing special cakes for birthdays are attested in rich families 15th century Germany. As the centuries passed, the tradition passed to the rest of the population and became established in other countries.

Birthday cake (credits Lionel Allorge)

The first attestation of candles instead it dates back to 1802 and concerns an important character: the writer Johan W. Goethe, who celebrated his birthday with 53 candles, equal to his birthday. Tradition has ancient legacies, perhaps even pre-Christian: the Greeks in fact had the habit of placing candles next to the cakes dedicated to Artemis, to make them light up like the Moon. In medieval Europe, however, the custom of placing candles on cakes to ward off harmful influences was widespread. From the reworking of these rituals the tradition of candles was established, which began to take shape in the nineteenth century and became popular throughout the West in the following century.

Then there’s the little song “Congratulations”composed of two American kindergarten teachers in 1893. However the song, titled the Good Morning to All (“Good morning everyone”), had a different function and was sung by the children when they entered the classroom. A few years later the words were changed by an unknown authorwho wrote the lyrics we all know to the melody composed in 1893. The English version (Happy Birthday to You) is first attested in 1912while versions in other languages, including Italian, became widespread in the following years.