Celebrating a Birthday? Why?

By Rakesh Ahuja

A cousin turns 60 today, a son turns 49 tomorrow. Congratulatory messages abound from relatives and friends in social media and E-mails.
I have never quite understood the ritual of congratulating a person for completing another year – or starting a new year – in his or her life. Why commemorate a date which relentlessly marks one step closer to their grave or the pyre year after year?
Of course, if the objective is to remind the person about his or her mortality, then it is understandable. There is some value in reminding the subject of the celebration that s/he is closer to release from the mortal coil. That one’s life is transient. (“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus.) If imparting that knowledge is the objective, then, by all means, a celebration may be in order, marked perhaps by a solemn reading from, say, a stoic such as Marcus Aurelius, or a reflective conversation among the dear ones about life and death and all that.
But suppose birthday wishes are to remind one of having ‘achieved’ another milestone in the ageing process. In that case, I do not get it – the parties, Happy Birthday songs, the cakes and blowing out candles and other insouciant fripperies.
The origins of celebrating birthdays are challenging to discern. Still, its antecedents in the AD era probably lie in the very concept of the Birth of Jesus, of marking it with Christian rituals. Christmas, etc. Keeping birthdays is a western concept. It is consistent with the linear mind embedded in western rationalism – of marking an individual’s progress in life by setting milestones.
The western concept of celebrating a birthday of an individual is also consistent with the Greek precepts of democracy, which focuses on the individual, not the family and the community when it comes to mortal existence. Adherence to calenders amplifies such practices. Birthdays essentially represent an individual’s journey towards a human demise.
The birthday ritual is now almost universal in previously colonised societies, where none existed before. A majority of European colonial offsprings follow the Christian ‘birthday’ tradition across the globe from South America to the South Pacific.
The western, linear focus on birthdays marking a life’s journey is in contrast to other cultures that do not celebrate birthdays of individuals. The focus instead is on the family and the community. (For example, Jehova’s Witness do not celebrate birthdays.) Or they consider time as an endless flow and do not have calendars to mark the day of birth.
My experiences of living in other cultures evidence one commonality: The birthday of the individual is not the point, the family and the community is.
The Chinese mind, by definition, is a collective, a sum of individuals, not individualistic. Emperors Mao’s and Xi’s China reflects that cultural norm. But notwithstanding the governing ideology, the underlying symbol of celebrating the ageing process in the Chinese culture remains: “Longevity noodles” (Yi Mein). These noodles celebrate a family occasion, not just the individual: a new-born, a wedding, a lunar new year – they are part of a family banquet to celebrate any happy event which might or might not coincide with a birthday.
In the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox Christians celebrated with intimate gatherings on “name days”, the day for which the host’s name came from (usually a Saint). Not the day of birth.
[I cannot resist a digression here. It is a measure of the ingrained western conception of birthdays that Kim Philby, the Soviet super-spy, continued to observe his birthdays grandiosely during his exile in Moscow. He was born in Ambala, Punjab in India on 1 January 1912. Indian dishes were a must at that anniversary. Once, I, with my Indian (and manufactured, scruffy MGU) visage, managed to crash his celebration in his central Moscow apartment carrying a couple of packets of Indian spices (usually provided to him by his children in the UK) to get past the guards. I lasted less than 10 minutes before being turfed out.]
In Lebanon, I witnessed a subtle change. Our Embassy was in West Beirut. As the civil war intensified, and Al-Mourabitoun and PLO offshoots took control of ‘Muslim’ Beirut areas, the practise of celebrating birthdays – primarily adopted from the French – faded away, giving way to community celebrations on Eid-al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The very concept of an individual’s birthdays came to be considered an infidel invention,” bid’a”.
In Vietnam, celebrating an individual’s birthday was rare. Birthdays are celebrated on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebrations.
India, of course, is in a class by itself when it comes to birthdays. Consistent with its cultural genius as defined by the Hindu way of life, there are no rules per se. Different Hindu communities thank providence for continuing longevity with various rituals. The first birthday is the most important (probably because of historically high mortality rates.) Overall, horoscopes drawn at birth are more important than a next birthday. But whatever the widely differing intersocietal perceptions of birthdays, Indian practices have adopted elements of the colonised mind – birthday songs, cakes and candles and other tawdry frivolities. And, worse, the nouveau riche tribe outdoes even the Americans with Big Fat Birthday Celebrations – including urging 2-year-olds to smash their faces into elaborately decorated and expensive cakes.
I can say without equivocation that I have never voluntarily celebrated my birthday. I have never sent an (uncoerced) congratulatory birthday message. However, it is true that at one time or another, a lover has insisted on marking it. The most notable one that I recall is being dragged to the central square on the Buda side of the Danube and being serenaded by a pre-arranged quartet. In Hungarian. The essence of the poem/song: “May God bless you. Live long, so your ears reach your ankles.”
76 now. They have not, but there is hope yet?
Finland has many cultural quirks, but surely one of the quirkiest is the habit of taking out an ad in the local newspaper to let everyone know you will not be celebrating (“En juhli”) a birthday — lest people show up at your door and ruin your entire dayOnly in Finland?
#CQ, #Birthdays, #Ageing