Tangent: A debate I’ve been having on whether birthdays are to be celebrated or not. Discuss.


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Another complete tangent, but hey, it is January 13 where I am and it’s my birthday and my blog, so…

Did I mention it’s my birthday?  Well, I’m the type of person who loves to be wished “Happy Birthday!”, so I even go out of my way tell people that today is the day.  And as my Facebook shows, people very kindly respond with greetings and best wishes.  Thanks!

But since I broached the subject , I’ve had interesting conversations yesterday and today with people who take a dim view of birthdays.  No, it’s not for the reason you might think (i.e., growing older and more clearly one day, month, year closer to death).  They put it down to modesty, even culture.

One friend I talked to today never advertises his birthday because he’s afraid that doing so will invite somebody to give him a present.  Then he’d feel obligated to give something back and that causes him stress.  He prefers his birthdays and his celebrations be immediate family affairs celebrated only by the people who care enough to remember it’s his birthday without being told.  Telling other people kinda spoils something.  He’d rather enjoy fruit fallen from a tree due to a windfall, not because he deliberately shook the tree.

Another friend talked about how birthdays are to him an artificial Western invention — who celebrated birthdays in days of yore, and in his Eastern culture?  He also feels that a celebration of oneself on one day is silly, when every day that one is alive should be a cause for celebration.  Why focus in on one day?

To them I said that we celebrate birthdays because in days of yore we had no birth certificates, thus most knew not exactly when they were born (making hard to celebrate).

More important to me is that birthdays are an unusual type of celebration.  Holidays or festivals celebrate, for example, a significant community event (e.g., an independence or foundation day, a notable person’s birth or death, a historical remembrance of ancestors and what they did or went through), the advent of a season, a person’s specific position in our lives (a parent or child), or other things cultural or temporal that the individual has no real control over.

A birthday, on the other hand, celebrates the individual.  It is the only event of the year that allows the individual to claiim his or her own special day, and allows said birthday person to bathe in Lake You and feel appreciated for being alive and part of other people’s lives.

And unlike festivals where people feel obligated to carry a large palanquin, stand in a parade, throw coins in a box, deck the halls, or engage in some cultural festivities that the individual has little control over, birthdays are nearly completely up to the individual.  Hell, as argued above, the individual can choose NOT to celebrate himself at all by just keeping schtum about his DOB.

But to me, the birthday is the most important day in the calendar year in terms of psychological recharging because it heralds the triumph of the individual, and the things that make her or him special, over the larger impersonality of culture.  I instinctively support that, because individuals generally get subsumed in the maintenance of the imagined community.  The national holiday can happen without you.  Your birthday cannot.

And why not celebrate every day you’re alive, not focus on one day?  What other day but a birthday will most well wishers be on board to wish you well?

What do other Debito.org Readers think?  Turning the discussion over to you.  Enjoy the tangent.  Dr. Debito

10 comments on “Tangent: A debate I’ve been having on whether birthdays are to be celebrated or not. Discuss.

  • Birthdays are a great reason to have a good time, maybe eat some cake, and feel good about life. What more could you ask for?

    As for people who feel pressure surrounding present giving, I think they’ve misinterpreted the notion. It’s perfectly acceptable to not give presents. Chip in on the cake money, sing Happy Birthday, and they will fully appreciate your feelings. Heck, my family hardly ever exchanges presents — and we’re family!

  • Jim di Griz says:

    Well, off the top of my head as a cultural anthropologist, I’d say that birthdays in the western sense (as in month and day of birth) stem from Roman dating systems invented to enable Roman state bureaucracy to function (themselves developed from less accurate calendars whose function was to regulate the agricultural cycle), also allowed the specific date of an individual’s birth to be recorded, in turn allowing the Romans to celebrate that individuals coming of age accurately for tax and military service purposes, as well as the calendar system permitting an accurate understanding of when to observe religious rites and festivals.

    Roman society was relatively advanced in terms of bureaucracy and laws (along with rights for citizens). This is something Japan didn’t have until almost 2000 years later, so I’m not surprised that our western cultural hangover from the Romans is somehow lost here.

    — Actually, the person who saw the issue from a self-professed “Eastern” point of view is not a Japanese, so this blog post is not specifically about Japan.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Dr. Debito,

    That’s fair enough, ‘Eastern’, not ‘Japanese’, but I would posit that the culture of their birth still uses a calendar system imported from the west, that includes concepts (like knowing the exact month and date of your birth) that their culture did not have before importation, or that has replaced the system that was previously in use (which for the majority of ‘the east’ would have been used to determine agricultural cycles in less accurate terms).

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    N.B. Until the importation of the western calendar, the concept of a ‘leap year’ would have been unknown, making calendars too unreliable to record month and date of birth.

  • j_jobseeker says:

    I’ve of the “not celebrating” / “not advertising my birthday” camp. I have personal reasons and don’t expect others to follow. If the few people who actually know my birthday want to get together and do something, I certainly won’t rain on their parade, though inside, I’m not having as much fun as I’m pretending on the outside.

    That being said, in the Philippines, it’s the one whose birthday it is that treats his/her friends to dinner or something. It’s called a “blowout” and is done to show your appreciation for the friends and family who are important in your life. I think there’s as many ways to commemorate a birthday as there are cultures and countries.

    To each his/her own, I say.

  • I already passed the dreaded (in my case at least) “milestone” of 50. I try to forget about my birthday but invariably am remembered by a friend who has something akin to a photographic memory for dates and numbers. I’ll be getting an email from him not long from now reminding me of what I would rather forget.

  • So the person who said this wasn”t Japanese?
    ” he’d feel obligated to give something back and that causes him stress. He’d rather enjoy fruit fallen from a tree due to a windfall, not because he deliberately shook the tree.”

    It strikes me as quite typically Japanese (as far as one can stereotype) but not because of birthdays, but from the whole “fear of incurring giri” standpoint in my experience. This has been often in business situations, or just acquaintances not wanting to accept something I offered- occasionally even going as far as to say “if I receive this-however nice it is- what “giri” will I incur?”

    And there have been many, many occasions, especially in the 80s and 90s, where Japanese have given (often unwanted) small gifts to me repeatedly, and then kind of expected something in return, or thought this allowed them some kind of special access to e.g. my house/office/free time/etc.

    The last bit about enjoying fruit fallen from a tree reminds me of not a few NJs who have fancied themselves as acclimatized to Japanese norms, who say that in Japan “you should not ask for something, but wait for it to be given.”

    Sounds like a long wait, and a bit like the Stones’ song “You can’t always get what you want but you can usually get what you need” -except without asking, they postulate.The cliche being that the Japanese have already thought about what you may need.

    Except of course, we NEED human rights but arent likely to be given them. A discount rail pass, a free AKB48 concert in Hong Kong (really- http://www.scmp.com/article/993540/rise-hk-tourists-perks-japan)
    or free WIFI for NJ tourists (which we did not ask for) doesnt quite pass muster and wasnt worth waiting twenty years for!

  • Edward J. Cunningham says:

    My birthday is the day after yours, and my cell phone reminded me it was your birthday. I apologize for not wishing you a happy birthday before now.

    — Right back atcha with apologies!

  • If you think that ‘giri’ requires you to give your friend a present just because they gave you one, they aren’t really your friend. If we’re talking about birthdays with friends and not, for example, coworkers, ‘giri’ has no applicability. On the other hand, some people dislike being the center of attention, which is a perfectly good reason not to celebrate their birthdays.


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