Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 29, 2004

traditions offer a merry occasion

By Angie Long

It comes but once a year. Children can’t wait for it to arrive. As the years pass, we often become a little less thrilled with it appears, but certain ones are absolute milestones in our lives.

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We are speaking, of course, about the holiday that commemorates our arrival into this world – our birthday.

Has humankind always celebrated birthdays?

And how do people in other parts of the world celebrate their birthdays?

Come and discover the happy and colorful traditions of the birthday celebration with us…and may we wish you a very Happy Birthday (even if you have stopped counting them).

What’s a birthday?

Until they came up with a way to keep track of the passage of time, people in ancient times had no idea how many years had passed – so they certainly didn’t celebrate birthdays.

Once they began to pay attention to the moon’s cycles, however, they were able see a pattern that kept repeating itself. Over time, calendars were formulated to kept track of time changes and other special days. Finally people had the ability to celebrate birthdays and other special events on the same day each year.

Before the rise of Christianity, pagans feared evil spirits – especially on one’s birthday. They believed a person was particularly vulnerable to trouble from evil spirits when a change came about in their daily life, such as turning a year older.

To combat the malevolent spirits, friends and family would surround the birthday celebrant with plenty of laughter and good wishes.

Instead of presents, most guests simply brought their positive thoughts and happy tidings for the upcoming year to the occasion. However, if the birthday person did receive a gift, it was considered an especially good omen.

Most early records of birthday celebrations involve royalty, high-ranking nobility and other important people. When the idea of birthday celebrations first came about, it’s doubtful ordinary people, especially children, ever celebrated their birthdays.

Perhaps the nobility were the only ones wealthy enough to throw early birthday bashes – and the only ones considered important enough for their birthdays to be recorded.

Nowadays, of course, it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, man, woman or child – a birthday celebration, be it small or large, is your due.

Although some birthday customs are quite similar in many countries today, not all nationalities celebrate their special day in the same way. Spiritual beliefs and ancient cultural traditions have been woven into the merry annual celebration, along with family history, language and economic status.

Birthdays around the world

In Latino cultures, a girl’s 15th birthday, called a quinceanera, marks her passage into adulthood. In addition to a party, this milestone often includes a religious ceremony in church, during which the young lady recognizes her heritage and her spiritual journey. Many quinceaneras include a candle-lighting ceremony in which the young lady lights the candles of her parents with the flame of her own candle; in turn, her parents light the candles of their parents, and so on.

In some Latin American countries, the young lady changes her shoes from flats to heels during the ceremony to demonstrate her coming of age.

Here in America, it’s common to give a ‘love lick’ to the birthday girl or boy, a tradition originally based on superstition (&uot;softening the soul for the tomb&uot;), which is now treated as a prank or joke.

Children in Argentina, however, receive a pull on the earlobe for their birthday. Traditionally, they get one pull for each year of life.

Each year, the Asante people of Ghana, Africa, celebrate &uot;krada&uot; (Soul Day) on the day of the week they were born. He or she wakes up early that day and washes using a special leaf soaked overnight in water. An afternoon feast with family and friends is held in the person’s honor, and the celebrant usually dresses in clothing with a white background.

In Korea, ‘paegil’ (the 100th day after a child’s birth) is a day of feasting for the family. Similarly, on a Korean child’s first birthday, called ‘tol’, a feast is held in his or her honor. Family and friends gather to share good food together and offer money as a birthday gift to the little one.

In China, people believe tigers protect children. Special food and toys or clothing decorated with tigers are presented to the birthday child. When a Chinese boy or girl turns one year old, a number of different objects are placed on the floor around the child. Ancient beliefs say the object the child chooses is a symbol of the profession he or she will pursue later in life.

In Germany, a child’s birthday celebration is called ‘kinderfeste’ (child’s party). Just as Germany gave us some of our most popular Christmas traditions, it has also been credited with the first birthday parties for kids.

However a birthday is celebrated, it can be a day of reflection, merriment and remembrance.