History of birthdays

Ancient Times (Middle East and Europe)

Source: Ralph and Adelin Linton (1952). The Lore of Birthdays. New York: Henry Schuman

  1. Recording birthdays became important mostly for purposes of astrology.
  2. In Egypt and Babylon, only the royalty and other important personages celebrated birthdays, usually with feasts for their entire households.
  3. Among the ancient Greeks the big celebrations were for the birthdays of the gods. Only important family heads (men only) celebrated personal birthdays. The Greeks started the tradition of lighted candles on cakes.
  4. In early days of the Roman Empire, only the emperor’s birthday was celebrated—and in grand style. Over time, birthday celebrations spread to the wealthy commoners.
  5. During the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, birthday records and parties went into decline, and the Church tried to eliminate birthday parties as pagan vestiges. Nobles frequently held revels to commemorate their birthdays, but probably without cakes or other forms of ritual.
  6. By the 12th century, birth records were back, and by the 14th century every infant was given the name of a saint as a protector. People celebrated their saint’s day, not their own birthday. Emphasizing a personal birthday still seemed a bit pagan.

Children’s Birthday Parties in America

(Source:  Elizabeth H. Pleck (2000). Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)

  1. The modern children’s birthday party came from Germany (kinderfeste) in the early 19th century, an era when the individual person was seen as important and when childhood was “discovered” as a special stage of life. These celebrations then spread to the U.S.
  2. In the U.S., children’s birthday parties were started by wealthy Protestant parents in the 1830s and gradually diffused to the rest of the population over the course of a hundred years. Poor children did not have birthday parties in the 19th century, nor did most immigrant families until well into the 20th century.
  3. For many decades, birthday parties were parent run with little input from the child. The parties had many guests (as many as 40 children invited by the parents from their circle), and were quite formal. They were “girl events” more than “boy events,” intended in part to teach social etiquette and middle class manners.
  4. Modern birthday parties from the beginning have been seen as the responsibility of mothers and have changed along with women’s roles in the family and society.
  5. It was not until the 1920s that children began to have much input, and the parties became smaller, more friend oriented, and more informal.
  6. The “sweet sixteen” party became popular in the 1920s as a middle class version of the debutante ball.
  7. Each wave of immigrant families found ways to adapt American birthday rituals in the face of their children’s pressure and the parents desires to adapt to American culture
  8. During the Great Depression, it was rare for most children to have any recognition of their birthday beyond a special cake served as dessert after family dinner.
  9. In the 1950s there was a new emphasis on “age-appropriate” parties, with only age peers invited and with games and activities suitable for each age group. This trend came at a time when child psychologists were emphasizing stages of child development. One child development institute published guidelines for appropriate parties for each year of the child’s life.
  10. The destination party started in the 1950s—museum, swimming pool, bowling alley, etc. But the mother still organized everything at the venue.
  11. During the 1980s, birthday parties increasingly moved outside the home and became one-stop-shop events organized by a new industry.
  12. Modern birthday parties, which started out as formal, home based rituals, have become informal, destination events with increased costs, parental competition, and expectations for originality.
  13. As early as the 1940s, there was a backlash about “overwhelming” and “exhausting” birthday parties.
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