Friday, May 13, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Happy Birth(orWhatever)Day!

by Peggy Robin

May 14 is a big day in my family: There are three family birthdays, representing three generations of the family, all on the same day. This year it falls on a Saturday, which is a convenient date for everyone to celebrate. We don’t often manage to celebrate all three birthdays on the actual date. Usually we end up waiting until it’s convenient for all three generations to get together, which in some years means putting the celebration off by a week, or even two or three weeks. It doesn’t bother us to celebrate a birthday long after the real date, as long as we also have a mini-celebration at home with our own birthday girl. She’s happy, because she gets to have cake twice for the same birthday.

Other families, I have discovered, handle birthdays differently. I have met --and argued with-- people who have a strong moral conviction that moving a birthday to a non-birthday date is just plain wrong. You just don’t move a birthday for your convenience (they say). It’s like Halloween or the Fourth of July: Would you go out trick-or-treating on November 1st? Would you expect people to set off fireworks on the Saturday closest to the Fourth of July? So why would you have a birthday cake and candles when it’s not really your birthday?

On the opposite extreme, there are families who don’t care at all about the actual date of someone’s birth. The Queen of England is a world renowned example. She was born on April 21, 1926 but commands her subjects to celebrate with her on the second Saturday in June. Moving the monarch’s birthday to June is a tradition in the British royal family that started with her grandfather, Edward VII, who, after considering the miserable weather in London around the time of his actual birthday, November 9, realized that by moving the public celebration ahead seven months, not only could he substantially improve the odds against a bone-chilling rain, but he could also piggyback his birthday onto an already-existing public ceremony, the Trooping of the Colours, and so reduce by half the numbers of days he had to remain standing at attention on a balcony, waving and pretending to have a good time.

You don’t need to be a royal to feel this way about birthdays. I have an old friend who was born in February. When she was a child, she wanted to have a pool party for her birthday, and so simply waited until after Memorial Day, when her community pool opened up, to issue her birthday party invitations. Her family thought it silly to celebrate her birthday twice, so her actual birthday passed by unobserved. Having heard this story from her, I wasn’t so terribly surprised one day to receive an invitation to her 50th birthday party to be held at a riverfront state park in Virginia…in June.

Perhaps more common these days than simply moving a birthday to preferred date is having multiple celebrations over a series of dates, usually with a changing cast of characters. This is most readibly understandable when the birthday girl or boy is a child of divorced parents. First, you have a party with the custodial parent and relatives. Then you have a second party, a few days later, with the non-custodial parent, who by that time has already heard of the size and quality of the celebration the first time around and so may have the time, money, and motivation to one-up the other parent with bigger and more elaborate presents and a fancier cake and decorations. If the child plays her cards right, she can incite an all-out birthday war between her parents, and cash in big time. I’ve seen it happen.

Another, more benign cause of the multi-date birthday is the longstanding tradition among different groups in society to mark birthdays in their own way. If you work in an office that takes the birthday celebrant out to lunch, it seems ungracious to decline, even if you’re an “Oh-no-don’t-bother” kind of person. Besides, you have to chip in every time it’s someone else’s birthday, so you might as well take the payback when it’s your turn. But then your book group may have its birthday ritual, and of course there’s your family celebration (which may involve something on the actual date as well as a dinner out on the nearest weekend night) and if you have a lot of family members concentrated in another city or region, you may find yourself the object of yet more birthday cheer, should you happen to visit within a month of your actual date. It’s not out of the question for someone who fits into all of these categories to end up, through no active measures on their part, celebrating a perfectly ordinary, non-decade birthday three, four, or maybe even five times.

The last birthday conundrum I want to discuss is that of the shared birthday. I began by mentioning that I have three close family members who share a birthday. I have a fourth whose birthday is just a few days later. Then when October rolls around, we have the same-date/multiple family celebration situation once again, with a birthday and an anniversary on the same day, plus another birthday just a couple of days before. We don’t mind getting one cake and writing multiple names and occasions in the icing on top, even if the calligraphy is a bit cramped. We either buy a large sheet cake and try to squeeze everything in, or get a small cake and go for a short, general message, like “Happy ______!” I don’t advise this solution, however, if one of the birthday celebrations is for a child under the age of ten.

Then again, I know some adults who would be miffed to be asked to have their birthday celebration rolled into anyone else’s or any other conveniently nearby festive occasion. You may think this is a rare phenomenon, but it crops up often enough as an advice column question. Someone writes in saying, “I can’t believe the selfishness of my sister, choosing my birthday as her wedding date. Now for the rest of my life my birthday won’t be special to my family anymore, as it will also be her anniversary!” I read things like this and think to myself, “The horror of it all!” And "What’s she going to do if her sister, once married, has the audacity to get pregnant and deliver the baby on her birthday? Her birthday would be ruined for life!"

Then we come to those people who feel that past the age of, let’s say seven, all birthdays are nonsense. They just don’t see the point of making a big deal of the date you happened to arrive on this earth. It’s not as if you can remember it. At some point it just becomes a reminder of the swiftness of passing years and all the downsides of aging. While I comprehend this anti-birthday perspective, I hope I never fall into it myself. As long as the birthday hoopla isn’t completely over-the-top I will be an enthusiastic celebrant of birthdays, whether my own, a friend’s or a family member’s. And I hope that will remain the case for however many birthdays I am granted.

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