We all like to be the centre of attention, just for one day every year. Which is why so many of us, especially our kids or those who just like a particularly good excuse for a night out, have birthday parties to celebrate everything about us, inviting our very closest friends and family to enjoy our special day with us. Except, traditionally, new party toys or a night out might not be quite the reason birthday parties became so popular.
Originally birthday parties were less about decadence and much more about perceived protection. Originating in Europe, the tradition of hosting celebrations on one’s day of birth were initially aimed not at children, but instead at royalty and other important persons. This was back in more superstitious times when people were more keen to believe in the presence of evil spirits to explain phenomena that science has since explained away.
It was believed that evil spirits were more attracted to people whose birthday it was and so people would gather to protect their monarchs, and later their friends and family too, from harm. The gathered group would bring good thoughts and wishes in the belief this would keep them safe. Gifts were also brought to help too, starting the tradition of birthday presents, but even in more superstitious times it is hard to see how they thought this might keep their loved ones safe. Still, their apparent myopia has become our modern day gain, with us all now expecting and receiving numerous presents to keep us, if not safe, then at least rather happy.
Cakes also pre-date modern birthday customs. In medieval times objects such as rings and coins were placed into a birthday cake, in the – again superstitious – belief that the finder would be brought luck or wealth or happiness.
The tradition of birthday parties changed through time as people became more spiritually aware, and the start of the modern day birthday party can be traced back to Germany where they were repackaged especially for children and called kinderfeste. Here, candles signifying the child’s age would be lit and left burning all day.
From here the significance of birthday parties evolved into what we know today. The significance is still firmly aimed towards the young, with children’s toys being given as presents and cakes prepared with candles, all harking back to the earlier traditions. We may have added a few superficial extras such as party games and party toys, but the core elements remain the same.
Traditions vary of course all over the world. In many African nations, single birthdays are not revered as special days at all, while in other cultures it is normal for the birthday boy or girl to be the one handing out presents or chocolates. Closer to home, Danish traditions insist that children’s toys be placed directly around the bed so they can be enjoyed immediately upon waking. But when it comes to our own traditions, we owe a lot more to superstition than self-indulgence.