First, the whole concept of birthday celebrations came out of an old European fear. People believed that you were susceptible to being harmed by evil spirits on the anniversary of their birth. To combat these harmful spirits, people would surround themselves with family and friends. They used noise-makers to scare away the evil spirits, and they lit candles and torches to signal the good spirits and gods. The act of blowing out candles was also a way to signal the good deities. These things, coupled with the guests’ well wishes and gifts, kept the evil spirits away for another year.
While most of us know that here in the U.S.A., we tend to celebrate with a birthday cake bedecked with candles to represent each year of the person’s life, and we sing “Happy Birthday” to the honoree, there are plenty of other birthday traditions across the globe. Here are a few to give you some ideas of how other cultures celebrate birthdays.
Africa—Rather than celebrating each individual child’s birthday, they often celebrate groups of children at one time. On designated birthdays, the children are taught the tribe’s laws, customs, songs, and dances.
Argentina—the birthday honoree has their earlobe pulled once for each year of his life.
Canada—The tradition here is to “grease the nose” with butter or margarine, and the thought behind it is to make the birthday boy or girl too slippery for bad luck and evil spirits to grab hold of.
Denmark—A flag is placed outside the window of the birthday honoree to signify that someone in the home has a birthday. Gifts are placed around the birthday child’s bed so he or she awakens to her presents.
Ecuador—On a girl’s fifteenth birthday, she will put on a pretty pink dress and dance a waltz with her father. Surrounding them, fourteen other couples, consisting of the birthday girl’s male and female friends, will also couple up and dance.
England—England celebrates birthdays with a traditional cake, but theirs is different than the American version. These so-called “Fortune Telling Cakes” have special items mixed into the batter, such as a coin or thimble. If you find a coin in your piece of cake, it is said that you will be rich. Each “treasure” has meaning.
Holland—The birthday child’s chair is decorated with special streamers, flowers, and balloons. Certain birthdays are called “crown birthdays” (again, my resources differed on which ones; one resource said it was even-year birthdays while the other said it was every 5th year birthday). These crown birthdays are marked by the honoree receiving an especially large gift.
Ireland—The birthday child is turned upside down and “bumped” on the floor, once for each year he or she has been alive, plus one for good luck.
Israel—The birthday child will sit in a chair while the adults raise and lower it once for each year of the child’s life, plus one for good luck.
Nepal—A mixture of rice yogurt and color is placed on the birthday child’s forehead as a sign of good luck.
Norway—The birthday child will go to the front of his or her classroom and dance with a friend while the rest of the class sings the happy birthday son.
Phillipines—The family attends Mass to thank God. Later in the day, birthday cakes are baked in various shapes and sizes. They celebrate by eating noodles, which is a sign of longevity, and decorate with piñatas and balloons.
Russia—Rather than a birthday cake, pies are preferred. The pies often have a special message baked into the crust.
It’s your turn: Tell me about your most memorable birthday (good or bad), or which of the traditions above you would most (or least) like to try at your next celebration. In honor of my birthday which just passed, if you leave your email address, you'll be entered in a drawing for a fun surprise.
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and made the top 10 and top 3 in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and five fur children.