Susan here. I had a birthday this week, great fun, with cake and candles and lovely notes from family and friends – which got me thinking about birthdays through history, and what do we do differently, or the same, now?
A birth would naturally be something to mark and remember in any historical culture, particularly where calendars were kept or some acknowledgement of days and seasons existed. And birthdays are a perfect complement to the study of astrology, which has its own very long history.
While it’s a solid guess that even the earliest cultures noted significant dates, and so perhaps births, possibly the earliest references to birthdays are in the Bible. In Genesis, an Egyptian pharaoh is said to have celebrated his birthday by “lifting up the heads” of a baker and a few others (let’s assume that meant he liked their cakes and elevated their status, or allowed them to look up in his presence, rather than lopping off heads and lifting them high). King Herod famously celebrated his birthday by watching the daughter of Herodias, Herod’s wife—often identified as Salomé—dance for him. In return, he rewarded her (thereby giving a gift on his birthday) by asking her what she wanted; she replied “the head of John the Baptist.”
It’s unknown whether these early birthday references were specifically natal days, or the “birth” of the king or the pharaoh on their coronation day. That’s harder for historians to determine. The ancient Persians, according to Herodotus, loved birthdays best of all holidays, and rich and poor celebrated with feasts piled high on their tables, the groaning boards of the wealthy piled higher than modest ones, but both apparently featured lots of meats.
The Greeks celebrated birthdays by associating them with the goddess Artemis, celebrating her feast on the same day each month, 12 times a year, with mooncakes, or small honeyed cakes, with a candle, as an offering to the goddess. Romans took note of birthdays with prayers and offerings to the gods, perhaps similar to Artemis and her mooncakes, as Roman writers note cakes of wheat and honey, along with cheese and wine—but only for guys. Roman women did not get much attention on their birthdays.
Almost certainly, Roman astrologers were casting natal charts, particularly for significant families, along with horoscopes relevant to the plans of emperors and others in power. For instance, a second century Roman astrologer created a global map so that he could more accurately determine the relationship of the stars to a person’s specific birth place (and likely birth date and time as well). The emperor Augustus had an astrologer outline his claim to power, and Emperor Tiberius employed a court astrologer as well.
Detouring to China around the same time, the Chinese perhaps invented the birthday card in the form of little notes created with beautiful calligraphy and a little ink sketch or two, wishing the birthday person good fortune and prosperity!
Astrology developed a great deal in the medieval era, from Arabic court astrologers to medieval astrologers sometimes regarded as a half-step above a diviner or a witch. Illuminated manuscripts often included astrological illustrations and astrological references alongside religious ones. A birthday, in medieval centuries, was less likely to be an actual birth date, and was more likely associated with a saint’s feast day, or a name day. If you were named for a saint, your own special day would be their feast day, not your birthday. If you were born on a holy day or holiday, you might be named for that day—and then you’d be lucky enough to celebrate your actual birthday on that day.
For instance, if you were born on the Feast of the Epiphany, you might be named Theophania (later Tiffany); born on Easter, you might be named Esther or Pascal; born on Christmas, you might be named Christina, Christian, Noel—or even Christmas. I once named a heroine Michaelmas and gave her the birthday of September 26, that feast day (it worked for the story–Lady Miracle). If you had a name saint, whether major or very minor—Mary, John, Ethelburga, Placidia, and so on—your day was theirs. My name is Susan, so I would share with Wench Susanna the feast day of St. Susanna, August 11—not my own birthday!
Chaucer mentions birthdays in “The Squire’s Tale” and ties it to astrology: And so bifel that whan this Cambyuskan Hath twenty wynter born his diademe—“he had the feast of his nativity proclaimed through Sarray, his city, Exactly March 15, in the ordinary course of the year. Phoebus the sun full jolly was and clear, for he was near his position of greatest power, In Mars’ face and in his astrological house of Aries, the choleric hot sign.”
Moving along, birthdays became a less important during the age of Protestants and Puritans—one must not call undue attention to oneself! By the 18th century, birthdays became a little more special again, celebrated with cakes and wine and parties—though that was more likely for royalty and nobility than the lowly ranks.
By the time of the Regency, it is not entirely clear how birthdays were celebrated, but they were regarded as special and worthy. Jane Austen writes to her sister Cassandra to wish her “joy of your birthday twenty times over,” although there are apparently no mentions of birthday parties or gifts in her novels.
The Victorians kicked the birthday into high gear with presents, cakes, blazing candles, parties, concerts—and in the later Victorian age, beautifully ornate and wildly sentimental cards and postcards sent to the birthday person.
How do you celebrate birthdays—homemade cake, bakery cake, moon cake? Presents and candles and wild parties? Or do you prefer a quiet birthday with family and friends or curled up with a good book?