Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a history show about why people resist new things. I’m Jason Feifer.
Imagine being 12 years old and it’s almost your birthday. There is almost no better time to be alive, so much anticipation, anything could happen. And that’s what a little girl named Annie was feeling, because her birthday was a rare constant in a somewhat unstable childhood. She lived in London, but her parents and three sisters went off to India for a few years for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Annie was left behind to live with her aunt in a nice big house, where her birthday was celebrated in style.
But then Annie’s mother and sisters came back to London, and so Annie had to move in with them into a much smaller house. Now, Annie had less attention and less space. But, Annie was a good kid. She tried to make the best of everything. And hey, it was almost her birthday and now Annie can celebrate it with her mom, which is something to look forward to. So Annie bounds over to her mother one day and she says…
Annie: “I feel so happy today, Mama. Do you know why? I hope you’ve not forgotten that tomorrow will be my birthday.”
Jason Feifer: And her mother replies…
Mama: “I think that you have every cause for feeling happy on all days, Annie. And I should like to hear your reasons for greater happiness on your birthday.”
Jason Feifer: So that doesn’t sound promising. And by the way, this story comes from a book published in 1864 called, Our Birthdays and How to Improve Them, because as you’ll soon learn, birthdays were a complicated subject back then. Anyway, Annie’s mother wants to know what makes a birthday special, so Annie takes the bait.
Annie: “Well, Mama, first of all, I have a holiday. That is pleasant, because I do not very much like doing lessons all the morning and part of the afternoon.”
Jason Feifer: Then Annie lists off all of the things she’d rather do on this personal holiday. Her friends will come over and they’ll have turkey and plum pudding for dinner and fruit for deserve. Oh, and she’ll get some nice presents too. The mother listens to all of this, and then asks…
Mama: “Why were all these things lavished upon you on this particular day? Was it as a reward for anything?”
Jason Feifer: And Annie is a little stumped here because, well, no, it wasn’t a reward. She didn’t cause her own birthday, but it’s the day she became alive. And so Annie says, “Isn’t that worth celebrating?” And then mom goes in for the kill.
Mama: “I think it is a subject for great and intense joy and gratitude that we have received the marvelous gift of life, but I wish to persuade you that this joy and gratitude might be shown in a more fitting way than by your method of passing your birthday.”
Jason Feifer: Then them mother goes on a very long Socratic dialogue about how instead of not doing her lessons that day, Annie should work even harder at her lessons. And instead of eating an expensive dinner, Annie should make some food and give it to the poor. And instead of having friends over, Annie should go find blind Mary, who is a blind woman named Mary, I guess. She’s just called blind Mary in the book. Anyway, she should help blind Mary walk across town. And as for presents, well, Annie definitely shouldn’t get any of those.
So that’s what Annie’s birthday becomes. And you might be thinking, “What is wrong with this awful woman? Can’t she just let her daughter have some fun?” But, don’t hold it against her. She was just a regular mom of the times.
Peter Sterns: A common disciplinary phrase in the 18th century, it was important to break the child’s will and this was the parent’s responsibility. And obviously, this did not encourage celebrating happy occasions with a bit of cake.
Jason Feifer: That’s Peter Sterns, a university professor of history at George Mason University. He’s done a lot of research into the history of the birthday party. And although what he just said there might take you by surprise, the next thing he says shocked me even more.
Peter Sterns: Celebration of birthdays is a late 18th, but particularly, a 19th century innovation.
Jason Feifer: Birthdays are pretty new, historically speaking. And isn’t that so crazy? Because I always thought of the birthday as something fundamental about us, like every human is born on a certain day, so of course, we would know that and consider it special. But no, that’s not true at all. In fact, for most of human history, people had no idea what day they were born. It didn’t even occur to them that a birth date was a fact worth knowing.
So when the birthday party arrived, it was as new as a newborn baby and it made the Western world very cranky. I mean, these were people of modesty and the birthday was an act of self-celebration. Many of them hated it. They saw it as frivolous at best and morally corrupting at worse. The birthday, in other words, was the 19th century version of this…
Speaker 5: Are millennials spoiled babies?
Simon Sinek: They were told that they were special all the time. They were told that they can have anything they want in life just because they want it.
Speaker 7: There is a little bit more focus on me, me, and what I can get.
Jason Feifer: Today’s moralists can’t understand why kids take selfies, and yesterday’s moralists couldn’t understand why kids like cake and presents. Somehow, across time, we grow concerned when young people celebrate themselves too much. And so, we draw a line anew. We say, “This time, the kids have gone too far.” So what can we learn about the fear of self-celebration by looking back at the dawn of the birthday party? That’s what we’re going to do on today’s episode of Pessimists Archive, because there is so much to discover here.
The birthday party was once seen as a corruption of the community, but turned out to have the exact opposite effect. So how was it opposed? Why was it finally embraced? And what does it look like when another group of people start to celebrating their birthdays for the first time now? It’s all coming up after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we’re back. The birthday party celebrates the beginning of a person. So to understand the opposition to the celebration of the beginning, we first need to start at the beginning of the celebration of the beginning that led to the beginning of the opposition, which is an overly complicated way of saying, where did the birthday party come from? And if you go down the rabbit hole on YouTube, you will find a lot of people asking that same question, though they’re coming at it a little differently.
Speaker 9: And so, when they ask me, do I celebrate my birthday, and I tell them no, and they ask me why, I then in turn ask them, “Well, what is the origin of birthday celebrations? Where does it originate from?”
Jason Feifer: That is one of many, many videos from people who preach a literal interpretation of the Bible. And actually, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate their birthdays. Though, I don’t know if people in these videos are Jehovah’s Witnesses. But whatever the case is, on the question of birthday parties, these guys on YouTube all agree, the Bible is a big party pooper.
Speaker 10: Right now, we know that in scripture, there is never anything good written about birthdays.
Jason Feifer: There is truth to this, actually. The Bible does reference birthday parties a few times, and the context is never good. For example, there is this scene in which Pharaoh sends his chief butler and chief baker to prison. So off they go, where they run into Joseph, who is imprisoned as well.
The chief butler and baker both have dreams and want someone to interpret those dreams, so Joseph does. He tells the chief butler that, good news, in three days, Pharaoh will give him his job back. And then he tells the chief baker that, “Oh, bad news. Pharaoh is going to hang you on a tree and birds will eat your flesh.” And here is what happens next, in Genesis 40:20…
Speaker 11: “And it came to pass on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast onto all his servants. And he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. Then he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker as Joseph had interpreted to them.”
Jason Feifer: That basically sets the tone for birthdays in the Bible. On Herod’s birthday, he has John the Baptist killed. Elsewhere, Jeremiah says, quote, “Cursed be the day on which I was born,” end quote. This kind of stuff led the early Christian scholar, Origen, to preach, quote, “No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday,” end quote. Which, of course, leads me to wonder, why? The guys on YouTube all have the same answer, and it’s some version of this…
Speaker 10: We know that from the Pagan kings in scripture the birthday is a form of self idol worship honoring self and removing you from the purpose of your life.
Jason Feifer: And if birthdays are a Pagan celebration of the self, then every little part of a birthday must have some Pagan origin. For example…
Speaker 12: Now, birthday cakes were in the round shape of the moon and they would represent the Greek goddess, Artemis. And the candles were on the cake to represent the light of the moon. Those birthday cakes with the candles are a direct act of idolatry.
Jason Feifer: Now, is that actually true? It’s hard to say, but that may be beside the point. Because if you look at this not from a religious point of view, but from a historical point of view, then here was the message really coming out of early Christianity…
John Portman: No. No can do, this bad. No, forbidden.
Jason Feifer: That’s John Portman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. And John says that if you want to understand all the birthday stuff, then it’s worth rewinding a few thousand years and looking at the war for hearts and minds. Because especially as religions develop, they draw a line and say, this thing that we do is good and this thing that they do is bad. And to just be super simplistic about it, early Christianity was very much defining itself in part against the competing polytheistic religions of the time, which meant looking a lot at what the Romans were doing and saying, nope.
John Portman: People trying to deny themselves pleasures, the pleasures of eating, the pleasures of sex, in order to demonstrate to God and to the community that they really, really mean it when they say they want to follow Jesus.
Jason Feifer: And the birthday may have been just one of those things, a thing that helped define a competing culture. Egyptian pharaohs and ancient Roman leaders did celebrate their birthdays, and some upper class males in those societies may have done the same.
But, here is the thing, to our modern minds, the references to birthday parties in the Bible might sound significant because the birthday plays a role in our culture today. But back in biblical times, the birthday was actually just one of many celebrations that early Christianity would have been opposed to.
It’s entirely possible that to people from thousands of years ago, the birthday was just one more super random and weird cultural marker, no more significant than, say, this celebration, which, okay, a warning, what you are about to hear is something you cannot un-hear.
John Portman: So in the Roman world, an event of great cultural significance was the day that your son ejaculates for the first time.
Jason Feifer: Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
John Portman: So families would be very excited about this. They would tell everyone in town and they would throw a big party for their son when he could ejaculate for the first time.
Jason Feifer: And now I know what I am most thankful for in the world, and it is not having that kind of party thrown for me. So anyway, the point of all this is to say, today’s religious literalists may harp on the birthday, but the Bible came out of a time with many, many random celebrations. Some of which did also make it into the book. I mean, there are celebrations of the new moon in there and about one bazillion feasts, so it may be a mistake to think the birthday is a particularly special feature of the Bible. It’s just one of many details from a very old recording.
Now, despite the birthday getting caught up in an early culture war, the birthday didn’t entirely go away over the centuries, but it did stay very high level. Rulers, and sometimes very important aristocrats throughout Europe would still celebrate their birthdays over the centuries, but it was really more of a political act. It was a way to call attention to their magnificence, and for the unwashed masses to show their respect. The average citizen wouldn’t have flattered themselves like this.
Though starting in the Middle Ages in Europe, average people may have celebrated a named day. It’s something that many countries still do today. Basically, everyone’s name is associated with a saint, and every saint has a designated day every year where they’re celebrated. So celebrating them is sort of a way to celebrate yourself. But then after centuries of this, something new happened.
Peter Sterns: The first known birthday in the US was in 1772 for a young teenage girl in Boston whose parents were quite wealthy. There may have been others, but that’s the first one we know about.
Jason Feifer: That’s Peter Sterns again. He’s the George Mason University professor you heard at the beginning of the episode. Now, we don’t know much about this first birthday party, but Peter says it wasn’t a seismic event. I mean, this was Boston in 1772. The colonies had bigger things to think about.
A few decades went by, and there were birthday parties here and there, but not many. And there are a few reasons for this, which we’ll get into in a minute. But, here was one of the most fundamental of them…
Peter Sterns: One of the traditional inhibitors for birthdays, particularly for people born in rural areas, was you simply didn’t know.
Jason Feifer: People just didn’t know when they were born. The UK government didn’t start collecting birth data on its citizens until the 1850s and the US didn’t standardized birth certificates until 1902. So if you’re living in rural America in the 1700s or early 1800s, which is to say most of America, then the date you were born on seemed about as noteworthy as the day you first ejaculated. But, schools would come to change all of this.
Peter Sterns: Once you begin to start requiring school attendance, which in the US is state legislation in places like New England in the 1830s and ’40s, this was tied to a particular age. So it becomes increasingly important for parents to note the date of birth and convey this to their kids.
Jason Feifer: Now, there was an actual reason to write down and remember a birthday, which meant people started keeping records of this stuff, which meant, well, now they had a date to celebrate. And around this same time, a bunch of other things in the culture were changing.
Peter Sterns: More and more people were becoming, at least, a little affluent in the American and British urban middle class.
Jason Feifer: And as the new middle class looked for new ways to spend their money, a new group of workers were creating a delicious new thing to buy.
Peter Sterns: Urban bakeries began to benefit in the United States from the influx of German immigrants from the 1840s onward, some of whom were master bakers.
Jason Feifer: So now you had easy access to cakes. And who could you give a cake to? Well, here is the most important change happening in culture at that time, it was starting to become okay to celebrate your child, because prior to then, people just weren’t doing that much. Families would have many children. And parents were expecting their children to be disciplined and work. But starting in the 1790s, and going strong into the 1830s and ’40s, the birth rate in America was dropping.
Peter Sterns: It’s pretty obvious to argue that in families with a smaller number of children, the opportunity to value the individual child, to pay attention to the individual child went up. So innocent children contributing actively to an idealized family happiness was a pretty familiar theme by the 1830s and ’40s.
Jason Feifer: So now we had birthday parties. They were a delight, but also still a novelty. And that’s why if you flip through newspapers of the time, you find all these amazing little reports of local birthday parties. They’re just in there like any other news. To give you a taste of it, here is one from December 2nd, 1849 in a paper called The Steele Enterprise of Steele, Missouri. The headline is, “Patricia A. Green has Birthday Party,” and here is the entire story…
Speaker 14: “Mrs. Verlon Green was hostess Monday when she entertained with a birthday party honoring her daughter, Patricia Ann, who was celebrating her 6th birthday. After several party games were played, refreshments of cake, ice cream and candy were served. Guests were Joy Lynn Jones, Bernita Rose [Moier 00:17:44], Delores Shelton, Kay Raggins, Donny Raggins, Faye Ray Robbins, Faye Howell, Charlotte Bernard, Janice [Piercie 00:17:51], Shannon Northcut, Donald Heathcock, Trudy Heathcock, Brenda Clark and Edith Pike. Patricia Ann received many nice presents.”
Jason Feifer: By the way, total side note, but every time I put these episodes together and find old stories like that, I am struck by how we’re all such helpless victims of time and memory. I mean, did you hear all those names?
Imagine being one of those people. You live a long and fulfilling life in Steele, Missouri, and then you die and you’re remembered for a generation, maybe two. And then you’re just a name that maybe your great-grandchildren know, and then a name your great-great-grandchildren don’t even have written down somewhere. And your accomplishments are forgotten and nobody speaks your name and you join the billions who came before you who are lost to time.
But, because you went to Patricia A. Green’s sixth birthday party in 1849 and a newspaper kept a record of it, and that newspaper was eventually scanned and archived by means you couldn’t anticipate, then your name will be spoken aloud for the first time in maybe a full century by a guy using technology that would make no sense to you in a world that would feel entirely foreign. And I know I sound like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris right now.
Owen Wilson: I’m having an insight now. It’s a minor one, but it-
Jason Feifer: But, it still kind of freaks me out every time, because that’s what awaits us all. Anyway, let’s now turn to a different kind of freak out, which is the freak out that cranky birthday haters of the 1800s were having as these parties became more popular.
A lot of their arguments were captured in books of the time. There were many, which we’ll dive into soon enough. But first, let’s go back to the book we heard at the beginning of this episode. It was from 1864. And again, it was called Our Birthdays and How to Improve Them. As you’ll recall, it told the story of little Annie, who was excited for her birthday, and Annie’s mother, who wanted to take all the fun away. And at one point in the story as they’re talking about why Annie doesn’t deserve any presents on her birthday, Annie’s mom says this…
Mama: “It appears to me more reasonable that you should yourself make a present to anyone that has taken trouble with you, to your aunt, for instance, or to me, or to your nurse, as a little token of gratitude for all that has been done for you.”
Jason Feifer: Which is like, “Jeez, Annie’s mom, get your own birthday party.” But okay, what’s behind this?
Peter Sterns: The big concerns were, one, children really should not be specially celebrated because they didn’t really bring anything to bear on family or social wellbeing at this point. If anybody should be celebrated in the family, it should be the parents not the kids.
Jason Feifer: And as a parent myself, I can kind of appreciate the logic of that. I mean, when you go to a one year old baby’s birthday party, you are really going to congratulate the parents for keeping that thing alive for a year.
Now, here is another concern as expressed in an 1855 book called, Henry’s Birthday, or Beginning to Be a Missionary.
Speaker 14: “Children of every age expected presents on their birthdays and many expected permission from their parents to invite together their associates on these days. Expected, did I say? Some were grown so bold, so republican, as to almost demand them to confirm.”
Jason Feifer: The most important word there, by the way, was expect. This was a new thing for children.
Peter Sterns: Children were sometimes actually coming to expect birthdays, to be sulky if they didn’t get birthdays, then to display, what we would call, a sense of entitlement. And this was particularly unfortunate because it put children in charge of something in the family at a point where, these objectors argued, parents should be totally in control.
Jason Feifer: And by the way, we should pause here for a moment to appreciate the perspective of many parents of this time. The late 18th century was an especially religious time in America and many people believed, quite literally, in the concept of original sin, which means that everyone is born a sinner, which means that children were, as Peter puts it, “born into a condition that had to be corrected.”
Peter Sterns: There was particular concern that parents had a moral responsibility to take their sinful children in-hand to correct their evil disposition.
Jason Feifer: Adults had the benefit of religion and the conscious effort of repenting for their original sin, but children did not have that. I mean, remember at the beginning of the show when Peter said that parents of the time wanted to break the will of their children? That’s what he was talking about, breaking the sinner. But, something was shifting.
Around the 1830s and ’40s, most mainstream American Protestants had moved away from original sin. Meaning, you had this generation of parents who may have been raised with it, and are now adjusting to what it means to raise their own children without treating them like sinners. The idea of giving them birthday parties and triggering all this entitlement and the expectations of presents, well, it would’ve still been a lot for people who still carried some religious objections.
Peter Sterns: The birthday was too child-centered and it was too secular. It detracted from the idea of children’s gratitude to parents. And it detracted from the idea of children’s respect for God.
Jason Feifer: And that helps explain this next little tidbit from an 1867 book called, Eleanor’s Three Birthdays. In it, a very proper girl named Eleanor must contend with a very bossy girl named Julia, whose birthdays are always extravagant affairs. The book say…
Speaker 16: “It’s strange that Julia could not see that Eleanor, who denied herself daily, seemed always to be in the sunshine while she, who was so self-indulgent, was almost cloudy and discontented. Selfishness like the leech calling for more, more.”
Jason Feifer: It’s a nostalgia for the way children were, or at least the way they were forced to be. And okay, here is one more from an 1864 book called Nettie Leigh’s Birthday. It features a different evil Julia, whose bragging to the well-behaved Nettie Leigh about her birthday party. And Julia says…
Julia: “I always have a large party, a children’s party, of course, but young ladies and gentlemen, my sister’s friends, come too. And when the little ones have gone, I stay up and we have great fun. Last time, I danced every dance.”
Jason Feifer: And we all know that dancing leads to dirty dancing. Now, this is how the conversation went for a few decades. As the birthday became more popular and seemed to chip away at the old standards of life. And then in the 1870s, two things happened to totally seal the deal. The first is schools started to celebrate kid’s birthdays in class. So if a family didn’t do birthdays before, now they pretty much had to. And then a very powerful cultural force started to enter the home, and it’s name was Ladies’ Home Journal.
Peter Sterns: Which began to push birthdays, literally, every year with articles on how to do it, how to make it fun for children. And this became the most widely read women’s magazine, not only in the US, but in the world.
Jason Feifer: Ladies’ Home Journal, leading the progressive charge into a brave new world. Funny thing though, I went to find one of those old pro-birthday articles from the 1870s, and instead I stumbled upon a Ladies’ Home Journal from 1913. And wouldn’t you know it, the narrative of the good old days had already set in. There is a piece in there about how birthday parties of the past were quite pleasant and simple, but today’s birthday parties, well, they have, quote, “four or more kinds of cake and not only white, but pink and green ice cream as well,” end quote. Also, there is so much entertainment for the children that…
Speaker 18: The children’s birthday party habit not only affects the moral nature of children in various ways and sows dangerous seeds for the future in child character and habits, but it also threatens their happiness through the danger to health, which such parties involve.
Jason Feifer: Think about that the next time you go for that fourth slice of cake. So all right, let’s take all this opposition and gift wrap it with a nice bow on top. Birthday parties represented a change to core values. It meant that families were structured differently. It reflected a shift towards materialism, and it encouraged a catering to young people’s whims. You can imagine someone of the times seeing great, terrifying ramifications of all this, as if the fabric of their community was going to come apart. An indulgent child would grow up to be less giving and more expectant. Create a whole world of people like that and nothing will hold them together, nothing will bind them.
And so, what actually happened? I was searching for an answer to this and came across a report published in a journal called The Advances of Consumer Research back in 1997. The report is called Lessons of Altruism and Egoism in Children’s Birthday Stories. And it does a deep dive into past research on birthdays, gift giving, and how birthdays appear in the stories we tell our children. Some of its conclusions are obvious. Like, it says that birthdays became an important way to prepare children for major life events, and that parties help foster a sense of the individual as well as each person’s uniqueness and personal value. But, and here was the surprising part for me, it also found that birthday parties helped strengthen the community, which is to say, the parties do the exact opposite of the thing people once feared they did. So how did that happen?
Russel Belk: If you are invited to a birthday celebration, that makes you a part of the in group.
Jason Feifer: That’s Russel Belk, a consumer researcher at York University in Toronto, who co-authored that paper I found. And Russ says that, as he studied birthday parties, he came to realize they helped define people’s community. I mean, yeah, if you’re in the group that means someone else is out of the group, and that sucks, but…
Russel Belk: Groups are defined by boundaries and just who is included and who is excluded says something important about the group.
Jason Feifer: Which is as true today as it was in a time before birthday parties. But now, if you’re in a group, then the birthday party becomes a self reinforcing system by which that group can support each other.
Russel Belk: There is always a lingering debt in the celebration of a birthday or the exchange of gifts, which are often simultaneous. And that too keeps the group spirit alive that-
Jason Feifer: I don’t know that I’ve ever heard somebody describe lingering debt in such a positive way.
Russel Belk: Well, I mean, suppose that someone invites you to their house for dinner. It would ideally be the case that you’ll invite them to your house for dinner as well, but not the next night.
Jason Feifer: This is the genius of the birthday party. Unlike other holidays, which only happen once a year on a designated time, birthday parties happen throughout the year, which means there is a constant accruing and paying of this lingering social debt. And sure, that’s a pretty un-sexy way of looking at our social ties, but debt does make the world go round. Our economy functions on debt, and so does society. The birthday haters of two centuries ago worried that individual celebrations would splinter us from each other, but we just created a system where everybody celebrates everyone. The group and the individual reinforce each other.
I asked Russ if there is anything about the birthday that I was missing, and he said, well, I’m looking at it from a very narrow cultural lens, because the birthday party has largely been a Western phenomenon tracking with the growth of the individual here. But in the East, which thinks differently about individuals and groups, the birthday party is still relatively new.
Russel Belk: A birthday and celebrating the individual as a part of that is something that you could see change within the last 40 years, I think, in India.
Jason Feifer: Ha! Which means that, if we want to see what it’s like for the birthday party to be a totally new thing, we are not limited to just looking backwards in history. We can look at our own modern time, just in a different part of the world. So it’s time to go to India, although, major caveat here…
Projit Mukarjee: Because there is just a immense, a lot of variation everywhere and it’s a massive place.
Jason Feifer: This is Projit.
Projit Mukarjee: I’m Projit Mukarjee.
Jason Feifer: And he’s an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who grew up in Calcutta. This is an important point, which I want to stress as we get into this subject, because India is a collection of so many different languages and religions and geographies and traditions. And I can’t promise a comprehensive study of birthdays here. But, that’s not really the point anyway. I wanted to know what happens when you start celebrating birthdays in a place that hadn’t done it before. And here, we have a modern case study.
So okay, the first thing to know, originally, birthday parties weren’t happening in India for much the same reason that they weren’t happening in America or anywhere else. There was a time when people just had no idea when their birthday was or even how old they were.
Projit Mukarjee: There is a lot of colonial discussions about this. Like, when we ask people, “What is your age,” they don’t seem to have a specific figure. They don’t seem to understand it. They would be roughly like, “I’m older than that guy,” and, “I’m younger than this person,” and that kind of way.
Jason Feifer: The British eventually instituted a census, which forced people to keep a record of their birth, though different regions of the country used different calendars, so that was complicated. But by the mid 20th century, at least the urban parts of India were becoming familiar with the birthday. The idea was coming from all sides. The British had introduced the tradition. Also, so many Indians had spent time living abroad, and then came back and brought the birthday with them. And also, the birthday was just all over Western TV and movies, which was playing in the country. So people wanted to celebrate, which in turn created India’s very own birthday backlash. Now, it took many forms. For example, there is the question of national identity.
Projit Mukarjee: Birthday parties are seen to be caught up with anxieties about Westernization and deracination. It’s like, “My parents never did this. Why are you doing it now?” It’s like, “You’re becoming very Westernized.”
Jason Feifer: There were also various religious fears, like here is a fairly grim one…
Projit Mukarjee: The kid is going to die younger, so she’s not going to live long if you celebrate her birthday.
Jason Feifer: Other people were concerned that birthday parties distract from marriage celebrations, which is the real time when a young person is supposed to be blessed by their elders. And of course, there are endless other examples of this. Those are just two that Projit had heard himself. And also, there was a concern that birthday just seemed excessive, especially in areas with so much poverty. But, at least in certain parts of the country, the birthday won out. People began celebrating. And in many cases, it became a symbol of the wealth disparity that was building in the country. Projit remembers growing up and going to a school in which some of his classmates were super wealthy. And this one kid in particular would throw a total bang up birthday party.
Projit Mukarjee: There was a time when his birthday, they used to a have a big house with a large lawn and on the lawn they had actually built a hut made of chocolate, so you could get into the hut and break bits of it and eat it. It was large enough for multiple kids to get into.
Jason Feifer: Which, okay, let’s be honest, that sounds awesome and also deeply unsanitary. But, not all birthdays were like that, of course. Here is someone with a very different memory.
Mahtab Narsimhan: My name is Mahtab Narsimhan. I’m a writer of children’s books.
Jason Feifer: So when Mahtab was in maybe the fourth or fifth grade, she remembers this tradition in her school in Mumbai. On a child’s birthday, the kid could show up with a bag of candy and give it out to their classmates, and then…
Mahtab Narsimhan: Your teacher would give you a little bit of time off from whichever class you were in to actually go around to the other classes and offer the candy to the teachers. And I still remember when we were in class and doing something, you’d have, pretty much every day, you would have some kid or the other show up at the doorstep with a bag of candy, and she would offer it to the teacher. And the teacher would wish her Happy Birthday and there you go. So basically, the whole school knew it was her birthday. Her class knew it was her birthday. And yeah, it was kind of sweet, but it was weird.
Jason Feifer: Although, you know what that reminds me of? It’s like those old religious stories in America from the mid 19th century, where instead of receiving presents on their birthday, children were supposed to give presents to their parents. It’s like a cultural redirection from both cultures.
So there we have two extremes. There is inviting your friends over for your very own chocolate hut, and there is humbly handing out candy to your teachers. And what’s in between? In India, the answer is a little of everything. As we interviewed people, we heard about all sorts of celebrations, very religious celebrations, very simple ones, very lavish and complex ones. And one does not necessarily influence the other.
Smitha Radhakrishnan: It’s not like if you live somewhere else you are looking at those photos and being like, “Oh, I wish I could do that for my kid.”
Jason Feifer: That’s Smitha.
Smitha Radhakrishnan: I’m Dr. Smitha Radhakrishnan, and I’m a associate professor of sociology at Wesley College.
Jason Feifer: And Smitha really forced me to reframe the way I thought about this. So first, there is that point she was making. She said, if you lived in one place, but saw how someone else in another place was celebrating a birthday, it wouldn’t necessarily influence you and the way you do it. And that’s because people across India have very different ideas of what a good life looks like.
Smitha Radhakrishnan: There is a wide variety of aspirations and desires, so everyone is not measuring themselves by the same metrics.
Jason Feifer: And sure, we can say a version of that about Western countries as well, but we’re also much more uniform. I mean, every kid’s birthday party I’ve ever been to is basically exactly the same as is every wedding, which makes India an interesting place to examine what happens when something new like this emerges. Because when we look at people’s reactions, and especially people’s negative reactions, it’s easy to see people pushing back against it in one way or another, but Smitha sees something else.
Smitha Radhakrishnan: So I would phrase it a little differently. I would say that it wasn’t necessarily about resisting the birthday party, because only if it’s pervasive, you feel like you’re resisting it. However, if you don’t think it’s that big of a deal to begin with then it’s like, well, why make such a big fuss out of it, right? So the sense that it’s a very special, sacred day and should be celebrated, I think that belief varies a lot. That the whole premise of the birthday party, right, is that this is a really special day that’s all about you and you should be celebrated on that day.
But, I think the view for folks [inaudible 00:35:46], at least some people in India or most people in India maybe is that this is a day to be grateful that you’re still here, right? And it’s not necessarily a huge celebration of your special individuality, but the day that you should be thankful and grateful to God for all your blessings and seek the god’s blessings for the coming year, and what else is there to do, right?
Jason Feifer: And there you have it. The modern day version of what we heard about all the way back from ancient Rome with their smorgasbord of celebrations and ejaculations that early Christians were rejecting. That’s what we’re looking at here. That, I think, is what we’ve always been looking at. The birthday party has always just been another option, take it or leave it. So why would we take it? Why would the birthday party do what it’s done, which is to basically come in and out of cultures for thousands of years taking different forms along the way? I think the answer is, it’s there when we needed it, however we needed it. This is what cultures do. We see a thing and we either say, “Nah, don’t need that,” or we say, “Yeah, that looks useful.”
So there were times when we were just celebrating our rulers and times where we celebrated ourselves, and our relationships with birthdays changed accordingly. When a culture transforms its modes of expression transforms as well. The thing it values changes. The thing its people want changes. And so, rather than bemoan what a new kind of celebration means and say, “Oh, what a disaster for our children,” I repose that we instead step back and take it as a useful fact. If some kind of celebration resonates with people, then it says something about those people. And those people can make use of it, just like birthday party celebrations created a lingering debt that bound communities together. You just can’t anticipate where it’s going to go, and maybe that’s worth understanding.
So now, extend that a little further. Extend it beyond birthdays. Extend it to other celebrations, to any moment where a shift in emphasis happens. Extend it to kids taking selfies or whatever else triggers our modern village elders to say the kinds of things that I played at the beginning of the show, like this guy.
Simon Sinek: They were told that they were special, all the time. They were told that they can have anything they want in life, just because they want it.
Jason Feifer: That’s the writer Simon Sinek, by the way. He gives a lot of talks and sells a lot of books. And that clip I played is from a rant of his that went viral a few years ago. All of which, I suppose, is his own quest to feel special and have anything he wants in life just because he wants it. And Simon was born in 1973. So here is a fun fact, want to hear something that people were debating about birthday parties at that time? Here is Russ Belk again.
Russel Belk: In the 1960s and ’70s, there were some popular child rearing advice manuals that suggest, if you have multiple children and one of them has a birthday party, you should really give somethings to the other children as well, so that they don’t feel left out. But, that sort of takes away from the specialness of the day, where everyone wins the race. And that can’t be the case. That there have to be some people that are special and some people that are either left out of the group or are not special on that particular day.
Jason Feifer: Well, wait, wait, [crosstalk 00:38:53]. That sounds exactly like what people condemn millennials for now with the everyone gets a trophy mentality. Are you familiar with that?
Russel Belk: Yes. [crosstalk 00:39:06].
Jason Feifer: So that’s not limited to millennials. In the ’60s and ’70s, people were suggesting what is functionally the same thing.
Russel Belk: Yeah, exactly.
Jason Feifer: Simon Sinek seems to think it’s bad for young people to be told they’re special. So I’m sure he’d enjoy knowing how just not special his own insights are.
Look, here is the point I’m trying to make, when I see the history of the birthday, both in the relatively straightforward way it settled into America and the more fragmented and complex way it’s still settling into India, I see a world in which the act of celebration is just normal. The kind of celebration will come and go and some will seem weird or funny or alarming or stupid, depending on who you are and when you’re living. But, the very act of it, of declaring something special, of declaring yourself special, and of using that specialness to define who we are to ourselves and to each other, that is just part of being human.
So who cares exactly how we do it? Who cares when we celebrate or who we celebrate with or whether it’s on a designated day, or if it’s the way we carry ourselves though the world? Condemning people for celebrating in a unfamiliar way today is basically the same as condemning people of the past for celebrating in a way we’re familiar with today. And do you know how many people that would be? Do you know how many people Simon Sinek would have to wag his finger at and say, “Oh, well, their sense of self is all wrong?” I’ll tell you how many people it would be, 94 billion, for real.
According to a very real organization called the Population Reference Bureau, that is the number of people who have lived and died on planet earth between 50,000 years ago, which is when the modern homo sapiens developed and the year 1850, which is when birthday parties started becoming popularized in America. 94 billion. 94 billion people who never celebrated their birthday and who probably never even knew their birthday and who never knew that a birthday was a piece of information ever worth having. I wish I knew what they celebrated. I bet it was just as weird as making a pile of sugar, lighting a small fire on it, blowing our germs all over it, and then forcing everyone to eat a slice. But, oh well, we’ll never knew.
So I suppose we could just use the framing we have today. Imagine it, throughout this year from January 1st to December 31st, all 94 billion of those people will have had a birthday. They were born on someday this year. We’re all connected in that way, whether we celebrate it or not. And that’s our episode.
While I was working on this, my younger son, Collin, turned one years old. And yes, we threw him a little birthday party. So now Collin has something to say, don’t you Collin?
Collin: (baby talk)
Jason Feifer: Right, right. Collin says that if you’re a fan of Pessimists Archive, you should… I’m sorry, what was that again, Collin?
Collin: Ah da da da. Ah da da.
Jason Feifer: Ah yes, you should share it with your friends, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please leave us a review, which helps other people find the show. Also, you can follow us on Twitter at @pessimistsarc. That’s pessimists A-R-C, where we’re sharing the ill conceived words of pessimists throughout history, or visit our website pessmists.co, which has links to lots of the things discussed in this episodes and also an archive of historical pessimism that’s searchable by innovation.
We also love hearing from you, so please drop us a line a [email protected]. And by the way, some people have been emailing us recently that have inspired episodes of this show. If you’ve got something that you think would make a great episode, let us know.
Thanks to our amazing voice actors as always. They were Brent Rose, who you can find at brentrose.com, and Gia Mora, who you can find at giamora.com.
Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the foundation at ckf.org/tech. Additional research for this episode by Louie Anslow and Britta [Lockton 00:42:55]. We were recorded by Charlie Culbert at Degraw Sound and sound edited by Alec [Balis 00:43:00]. Our web master is James [Stewart 00:43:02]. And of course, thanks again to all the experts who spoke to us in this episode.
So the cake is eaten, all the presents are opened, but wait, there is one more sitting there in the corner being held by that weird goth kid who wasn’t invited to the party. What could it be? Let’s open it up. And, oh, look at that. It’s praise for the birthday from Satan, because we had so many religious objections to birthday parties in this episode. So we, of course, need to hear from the opposing viewpoint. Here are the words of Anton Szandor LaVey, the high priest of the Church of Satan as he wrote in the Satanic Bible in 1969.
Anton Szandor LaVey: The highest of all holidays in the Satanic religion is the date of one’s own birthday. This is in direct contradiction to the holy of holy days of other religions, which deify a particular god who has been created in an anthropomorphic form of their own image. Thereby, showing that the ego is not really buried. The Satanist feels why not really be honest? And if you’re going to create a god in your image, why not create that god as yourself. Every man is a god, if he chooses to recognize himself as one. So the Satanist celebrates his own birthday as the most important holiday of the year.
Jason Feifer: Satanist or not, if you celebrate your birthday, then Happy Birthday to you, whenever that is. Thanks for listening. I’m Jason Feifer. And we’ll see you in the near future.