Opinion: Why Do We Even Celebrate Birthdays?

Why do we celebrate birthdays? 

That special day every year, where we wake up to wishes on Facebook (often due to reminders rather than actually remembering the date), and maybe a better-than-usual meal that you’re treated to at a swanky restaurant. Or, if you’re not too old, an organized party where friends and family come together to present to you gifts, and of course, cake with candles.

Why do we celebrate birthdays? What is in it, other than a reminder that you’ve turned one year older?

Oddly enough, the idea of celebrating your own birthday originated with the Pagans and Satanists. To them, the highest of all holidays was the date of one’s own birthday. This had to do with their beliefs that humans are born with “original sin” and that every man is a god if he chooses to recognise himself as one. Due to these associations, for most of its first few thousand years of existence, the Christian Church considered birthday celebrations evil and immoral. Eventually, the Christians accepted the ritual after Christmas (the celebration of Jesus’s birthday) gained popularity.

Ludwig Knaus – Ein Kinderfest (1868)

Fast forward a few thousand years to 18thcentury Germany and we see the rise of Kinderfeste (Children Party). This celebration for children, involved both birthday cakes and candles. Kids got a candle for every year they had been alive, and one more — to symbolise the hope of living another. It was a celebration of past achievements and potential future ones. 

This is exactly why most of us celebrate birthdays. Given our tendency to make mistakes, destroy relationships, harm ourselves and others, being able to reach that annual milestone of our lives is indeed an achievement. In a fast-paced society like ours, we are bombarded with external pressures and forces daily – be it from the economy or from our relationship with the rest of society. To placate that anxiety, we naturally look to various avenues as an outlet of relief. Despite all the things we do to ourselves, we still manage to reach that annual milestone of our lives, and that is an achievement in itself.

So why do we celebrate birthdays?

“Most of us may not be remarkable enough to effect some groundbreaking achievement like win an Olympic gold medal”

For me, a birthday is a cause for celebration because it is a reminder of all the things that we have done, and all the things we have. Yes, while most of us may not be remarkable enough to effect some groundbreaking achievement like win an Olympic gold medal, or find a cure to cancer, it would be remiss to not recognize the many (seemingly small) achievements that we have in our lives. It might be that one evening where you get to have a family dinner despite a demanding work schedule, or perhaps, losing that 5kg you always wanted to lose to be fitter and healthier. In short, our achievements may not be remarkable, but they can be, if we allow them to be

It is also a celebration of the things we have, and why we should be thankful for them, and to not worry too much about the things we don’t have. For that one day, we allow ourselves, to forget about all the other things we have to worry about, and to just focus on the things that makes us happy – our life, our achievements, and the people around us. Is this naivety? I don’t think so. Yes, we have to return to the hustle and bustle of life the next day, we still have to grapple with the many struggles that we might have, but I’d like to think that, for that one day, we are allowed to not focus on those things, but instead to pause, reflect, and be thankful for everything that has happened to us. I mentioned the word ‘achievements’ a lot above, and rightfully so – it is an achievement to be one year older, in a world plagued with disease, death, and destruction. In a world where so many dangers are posed, the unforeseen tragedy of life being taken away by the things we create, and even the unexplainable, it is an achievement that we get to celebrate one more year of the fragility of life.

You may not be perfect, but you are home.

Happy Birthday, Singapore.  


Mark Seah


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