Everyone’s got a birthday. It’s the one day out of the year that’s all about you. Whether you celebrate it with cake at home or with G&Ts on the town, it’s a day that’s different from the other 364.
Have you ever stopped to consider how strange that is?
Our belief in birthdays spans diverse religions and cultures. It’s persisted across generations and technologies. The ways we celebrate it evolve over the years – I’m looking at you, Facebook – but the idea persists that the anniversary of the day of your birth is somehow special.
As far as we know, other animals don’t celebrate their birthdays. So why do so many humans believe in them?
Birthdays as shared cultural narrative about aging
One of the principal theories I’ve come across in my research is that birthdays serve as an opportunity to culturally connect with each other about aging.
Getting older is easy (look, you’re doing it right now!). Dealing with it is complex. And it’s a big help to feel like we’re not alone.
What does it mean to be 21, 50, 90? Especially with these milestone birthdays, we look to the cultural narrative as a reference point. Everything we absorb through the media – gossip magazines, news feeds, Instagram influencers, etc. – has an impact on how we understand age.
There’s a reason why you see so many articles with titles like “What I Wish I’d Known At 18,” “10 Things You Should Stop Doing By The Time You Turn 30,” “50 Is The New 40,” and so forth.
That number really does have weight – cultural weight. Whether or not you conform to it is up to you, but you can’t avoid being influenced by it.
Celebrating your birthday each year is a way of marking and reevaluating where you currently stand in relationship to everyone else. Even if you’re too busy taking tequila shots to notice, it’s a time to reflect on how you fit into the cultural narrative according to your age.
What celebrating a birthday means in your close community
For most people, birthdays are a social event. Some keep it fairly quiet while others hold a blowout party, but it’s rare that people keep their birthday a total secret from everyone.
For those you’re already close to, recognition of a birthday is all but obligatory. Forgetting the birthday of a close friend or important family member is a severe faux pas, hence the entire subgenre of belated greeting cards.
Everyone wants to feel celebrated on their one day; a birthday that goes unrecognized by all is the stuff of nightmares. Neglect of social customs surrounding your one special day can result in feeling wholly discarded as a person.
Even if you prefer to keep your birthday celebrations small, you probably would feel awfully strange without the rituals surrounding it – whether a call from your mother, a kiss from your partner, or a beer with your best friend.
What celebrating a birthday means in your extended community
Birthdays are an annual opportunity to sustain personal relationships. Facebook knows this better than anybody; it’s why you’re prompted to wish a happy birthday to that guy you haven’t seen since high school. Many of us use birthdays as a chance to connect with people we don’t see all the time, or even to reconnect with people we’ve lost touch with.
And if we’ve recently met someone, a birthday is a chance to deepen our relationship with that person. Making gestures that show you recognize their day of birth as special is a fast-track route to a more intimate connection. Celebrating someone’s birthday is a way of elevating a person above others, letting them know “You are important to me.”
There’s no reason that one arbitrary day should be any more apt for reaching out than the other 364. But because people believe in birthdays, it makes a perfect excuse.
So, like… is belief in birthdays evil?
After all my research and writing, I still think our collective belief in birthdays is odd. But I also find it quite lovely.
Birthdays serve as a handy cultural excuse to celebrate each other. They offer us an annual chance to collectively reflect on our journey through time.
It’s bumpy and funky. More often than not, it results in a fresh batch of gray hairs. But birthdays remind us that, hey – at least we’re in this mess together.