Birthdays in History

Pancraz_Körle_Die_Geburtstagstorte

 The Birthday Cake, Pancraz Koerle, 1875, private collection

Susan here. September is a busy birthday month in our family, with birthdays from the first week through the last week (and into October) – lots of Virgos and Librans! We're celebrating a special birthday this week, with cake and candles and gifts for this lovely person. And that got me thinking about birthday celebrations through history. Were birthday celebrations as important in other eras as they are today? 

AkhenatennefertitiEven early cultures had ways of noting significant dates and of course marking the significance of births. Some of the earliest refences to birthdays occur in the Bible. In Genesis, an Egyptian pharaoh was 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 own birthday) by asking her what she most wanted; she asked for the head of John the Baptist. 

It’s unknown whether these ancient references to birthdays marked actual natal days, or the “birth” of the king or the pharaoh on their coronation day. Persian relief sculpture
That’s not always easy for historians to determine. 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 (this ancient bas-relief shows that Persians really knew how to party).

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.  

1200px-A_Dedication_to_Bacchus
Almost certainly, Roman astrologers were casting natal charts for important families, along with horoscopes drawn to support the plans of caesars and other powerful leaders. A second-century Roman astrologer created a global map to accurately determine the position of the stars for a person's place of birth, date, and time as well. Emperor Augustus had an astrologer outline his claim to power, while Tiberius is known to have employed a court astrologer as one of his advisors.

Chinese 13th c met musDetouring to China around the same time, the Chinese favored birthdays with calligraphy and ink sketches to wish the birthday person good fortune and prosperity – and thereby invented the birthday card! 

Astrology continued to develop during the Middle Ages. Arabic court astrologers studied the stars to produce such accurate methods and charts that they are still in use today. In Europe, medieval astrologers learned a great deal about astrology and medicine from the Middle East, and utlized them in the healing arts–physicans and healers often relied on astrological information to understand ailments. While many regarded astrologers as diviners and wizards practicing suspicious arts, astrology and the zodiac were part of the medieval knowledge base. Illuminated manuscripts included astrological illustrations and information right alongside religious content, yet skepticism remained. 

Libra morgan libraryIn the medieval centuries, birth dates were not always as important as the saint's feast day associated with the day, which then became a person's name day. If the birth date was not known, then a given name, if similar to a saint's name, could determine the date. If you were born on a holy day or holiday, you could be named for the day itself—in which case, you'd know your actual birthday. A girl born on the Feast of the Epiphany could be named Theophania (later Tiffany); born on Easter, the name might be Esther or Pascal; born on Christmas, you might be named Christina, Christian, Noel—or even Christmas. As Susan, my name day would be the feast day of St. Susanna, August 11—not my own birthday in October. In one of my books, I named a heroine Michaelmas for her birthday of September 26, that feast day (it worked for the story–Lady Miracle), Michael for short (then as now, male names were sometimes given to girls). English ms zodiac signs

Sometimes the date was known and noted. Chaucer mentions natal astrology in “The Squire’s Tale” –  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.”

Pancraz_Körle_Die_Geburtstagstorte - CopyMoving along, birthdays lost importance during the age of Protestants and Puritans—one must not call undue attention to oneself! But the 18th century brought back the appreciation of birthdays and the individual, and one's special day might be celebrated with cakes and wine and parties—though that was more likely for royalty and nobility than the less privileged classes. 

By the time of the Regency, it is not entirely clear what birthday traditions existed, but they were definitely 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.

Victorian dinner partyThe 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. Those traditions carried right along into the 20th century and beyond! 

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?   

65 thoughts on “Birthdays in History”

  1. I tend to think of birthdays as family affairs, but we do have one tradition: the birthday celebrant gets to choose what’s for dinner, including the cake. When she was young, my daughter was easy—spaghetti with tomato sauce or hot dogs or mac and cheese. My son tended to be more ambitious—rouladen or braciole. But that was easy compared to my nephew who wanted dobostorte for his cake—seven layers, all cooked separately, sandwiched with chocolate buttercream.

    Reply
  2. I tend to think of birthdays as family affairs, but we do have one tradition: the birthday celebrant gets to choose what’s for dinner, including the cake. When she was young, my daughter was easy—spaghetti with tomato sauce or hot dogs or mac and cheese. My son tended to be more ambitious—rouladen or braciole. But that was easy compared to my nephew who wanted dobostorte for his cake—seven layers, all cooked separately, sandwiched with chocolate buttercream.

    Reply
  3. I tend to think of birthdays as family affairs, but we do have one tradition: the birthday celebrant gets to choose what’s for dinner, including the cake. When she was young, my daughter was easy—spaghetti with tomato sauce or hot dogs or mac and cheese. My son tended to be more ambitious—rouladen or braciole. But that was easy compared to my nephew who wanted dobostorte for his cake—seven layers, all cooked separately, sandwiched with chocolate buttercream.

    Reply
  4. I tend to think of birthdays as family affairs, but we do have one tradition: the birthday celebrant gets to choose what’s for dinner, including the cake. When she was young, my daughter was easy—spaghetti with tomato sauce or hot dogs or mac and cheese. My son tended to be more ambitious—rouladen or braciole. But that was easy compared to my nephew who wanted dobostorte for his cake—seven layers, all cooked separately, sandwiched with chocolate buttercream.

    Reply
  5. I tend to think of birthdays as family affairs, but we do have one tradition: the birthday celebrant gets to choose what’s for dinner, including the cake. When she was young, my daughter was easy—spaghetti with tomato sauce or hot dogs or mac and cheese. My son tended to be more ambitious—rouladen or braciole. But that was easy compared to my nephew who wanted dobostorte for his cake—seven layers, all cooked separately, sandwiched with chocolate buttercream.

    Reply
  6. I love celebrating my birthday & usually do it for a month! LOL. My husband doesn’t trumpet his birthday but he still celebrates the whole week. Back when our kids were young and family lived closer we’d do all the birthday party stuff. Any excuse for a party, right??!!

    Reply
  7. I love celebrating my birthday & usually do it for a month! LOL. My husband doesn’t trumpet his birthday but he still celebrates the whole week. Back when our kids were young and family lived closer we’d do all the birthday party stuff. Any excuse for a party, right??!!

    Reply
  8. I love celebrating my birthday & usually do it for a month! LOL. My husband doesn’t trumpet his birthday but he still celebrates the whole week. Back when our kids were young and family lived closer we’d do all the birthday party stuff. Any excuse for a party, right??!!

    Reply
  9. I love celebrating my birthday & usually do it for a month! LOL. My husband doesn’t trumpet his birthday but he still celebrates the whole week. Back when our kids were young and family lived closer we’d do all the birthday party stuff. Any excuse for a party, right??!!

    Reply
  10. I love celebrating my birthday & usually do it for a month! LOL. My husband doesn’t trumpet his birthday but he still celebrates the whole week. Back when our kids were young and family lived closer we’d do all the birthday party stuff. Any excuse for a party, right??!!

    Reply
  11. Thanks for a fascinating post, Susan. We celebrate birthdays with cake or another edible treat plus gifts. Since the gifts usually include at least one book, I’m fortunate to have cake AND a book. And happy almost birthday to you!

    Reply
  12. Thanks for a fascinating post, Susan. We celebrate birthdays with cake or another edible treat plus gifts. Since the gifts usually include at least one book, I’m fortunate to have cake AND a book. And happy almost birthday to you!

    Reply
  13. Thanks for a fascinating post, Susan. We celebrate birthdays with cake or another edible treat plus gifts. Since the gifts usually include at least one book, I’m fortunate to have cake AND a book. And happy almost birthday to you!

    Reply
  14. Thanks for a fascinating post, Susan. We celebrate birthdays with cake or another edible treat plus gifts. Since the gifts usually include at least one book, I’m fortunate to have cake AND a book. And happy almost birthday to you!

    Reply
  15. Thanks for a fascinating post, Susan. We celebrate birthdays with cake or another edible treat plus gifts. Since the gifts usually include at least one book, I’m fortunate to have cake AND a book. And happy almost birthday to you!

    Reply
  16. Susan, I do hope the bakers’ heads weren’t removed! What an interesting study of the history of birthdays. Personally, I like a birthday dinner and a birthday week or month which includes lunch with friends. There should be cake!

    Reply
  17. Susan, I do hope the bakers’ heads weren’t removed! What an interesting study of the history of birthdays. Personally, I like a birthday dinner and a birthday week or month which includes lunch with friends. There should be cake!

    Reply
  18. Susan, I do hope the bakers’ heads weren’t removed! What an interesting study of the history of birthdays. Personally, I like a birthday dinner and a birthday week or month which includes lunch with friends. There should be cake!

    Reply
  19. Susan, I do hope the bakers’ heads weren’t removed! What an interesting study of the history of birthdays. Personally, I like a birthday dinner and a birthday week or month which includes lunch with friends. There should be cake!

    Reply
  20. Susan, I do hope the bakers’ heads weren’t removed! What an interesting study of the history of birthdays. Personally, I like a birthday dinner and a birthday week or month which includes lunch with friends. There should be cake!

    Reply
  21. Family tradition has been serving the birthday celebrant’s favorite meal and cake. I don’t remember my children’s favorite meal — each child changed it often. Buit for each child the cake was chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
    My favorite meal as a child was chicken and dumplings with Angelfood cake, NO icing, for desert. Today, I’d rather have pie than cake.
    My birthday was September 9, today is my husband’d birthday. Before Covid-19, we’d pick a day somewhere within that time spamn go out to a favoirite restaurant, just the two of us.

    Reply
  22. Family tradition has been serving the birthday celebrant’s favorite meal and cake. I don’t remember my children’s favorite meal — each child changed it often. Buit for each child the cake was chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
    My favorite meal as a child was chicken and dumplings with Angelfood cake, NO icing, for desert. Today, I’d rather have pie than cake.
    My birthday was September 9, today is my husband’d birthday. Before Covid-19, we’d pick a day somewhere within that time spamn go out to a favoirite restaurant, just the two of us.

    Reply
  23. Family tradition has been serving the birthday celebrant’s favorite meal and cake. I don’t remember my children’s favorite meal — each child changed it often. Buit for each child the cake was chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
    My favorite meal as a child was chicken and dumplings with Angelfood cake, NO icing, for desert. Today, I’d rather have pie than cake.
    My birthday was September 9, today is my husband’d birthday. Before Covid-19, we’d pick a day somewhere within that time spamn go out to a favoirite restaurant, just the two of us.

    Reply
  24. Family tradition has been serving the birthday celebrant’s favorite meal and cake. I don’t remember my children’s favorite meal — each child changed it often. Buit for each child the cake was chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
    My favorite meal as a child was chicken and dumplings with Angelfood cake, NO icing, for desert. Today, I’d rather have pie than cake.
    My birthday was September 9, today is my husband’d birthday. Before Covid-19, we’d pick a day somewhere within that time spamn go out to a favoirite restaurant, just the two of us.

    Reply
  25. Family tradition has been serving the birthday celebrant’s favorite meal and cake. I don’t remember my children’s favorite meal — each child changed it often. Buit for each child the cake was chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
    My favorite meal as a child was chicken and dumplings with Angelfood cake, NO icing, for desert. Today, I’d rather have pie than cake.
    My birthday was September 9, today is my husband’d birthday. Before Covid-19, we’d pick a day somewhere within that time spamn go out to a favoirite restaurant, just the two of us.

    Reply
  26. I especially love Wench posts that make me think about something I’d never considered before, so thanks very much, Susan! My husband’s large family is also full of September and October birthdays and they have several traditions that were unfamiliar, and somewhat strange, to me when I joined them (in a September wedding) many years ago. When they were kids, each of the 8 siblings got smacked on the behind by all the others every birthday – smacked for the number of years they were celebrating! They also each received one dollar in a birthday card from their parents; whether 1 year old or 18, it was always $1. The parents stopped doing that years ago, but my sentimental husband keeps up the practice. The tradition of which I’m most fond, however, also continues, and it extends to in-laws like me. Each of the other siblings and their families all call the one having the birthday and sing Happy Birthday – often accompanied by kazoos, drums, and even, on one memorable occasion, an oboe! It’s great fun, and even in these days of Zoom, they continue to do it by phone.

    Reply
  27. I especially love Wench posts that make me think about something I’d never considered before, so thanks very much, Susan! My husband’s large family is also full of September and October birthdays and they have several traditions that were unfamiliar, and somewhat strange, to me when I joined them (in a September wedding) many years ago. When they were kids, each of the 8 siblings got smacked on the behind by all the others every birthday – smacked for the number of years they were celebrating! They also each received one dollar in a birthday card from their parents; whether 1 year old or 18, it was always $1. The parents stopped doing that years ago, but my sentimental husband keeps up the practice. The tradition of which I’m most fond, however, also continues, and it extends to in-laws like me. Each of the other siblings and their families all call the one having the birthday and sing Happy Birthday – often accompanied by kazoos, drums, and even, on one memorable occasion, an oboe! It’s great fun, and even in these days of Zoom, they continue to do it by phone.

    Reply
  28. I especially love Wench posts that make me think about something I’d never considered before, so thanks very much, Susan! My husband’s large family is also full of September and October birthdays and they have several traditions that were unfamiliar, and somewhat strange, to me when I joined them (in a September wedding) many years ago. When they were kids, each of the 8 siblings got smacked on the behind by all the others every birthday – smacked for the number of years they were celebrating! They also each received one dollar in a birthday card from their parents; whether 1 year old or 18, it was always $1. The parents stopped doing that years ago, but my sentimental husband keeps up the practice. The tradition of which I’m most fond, however, also continues, and it extends to in-laws like me. Each of the other siblings and their families all call the one having the birthday and sing Happy Birthday – often accompanied by kazoos, drums, and even, on one memorable occasion, an oboe! It’s great fun, and even in these days of Zoom, they continue to do it by phone.

    Reply
  29. I especially love Wench posts that make me think about something I’d never considered before, so thanks very much, Susan! My husband’s large family is also full of September and October birthdays and they have several traditions that were unfamiliar, and somewhat strange, to me when I joined them (in a September wedding) many years ago. When they were kids, each of the 8 siblings got smacked on the behind by all the others every birthday – smacked for the number of years they were celebrating! They also each received one dollar in a birthday card from their parents; whether 1 year old or 18, it was always $1. The parents stopped doing that years ago, but my sentimental husband keeps up the practice. The tradition of which I’m most fond, however, also continues, and it extends to in-laws like me. Each of the other siblings and their families all call the one having the birthday and sing Happy Birthday – often accompanied by kazoos, drums, and even, on one memorable occasion, an oboe! It’s great fun, and even in these days of Zoom, they continue to do it by phone.

    Reply
  30. I especially love Wench posts that make me think about something I’d never considered before, so thanks very much, Susan! My husband’s large family is also full of September and October birthdays and they have several traditions that were unfamiliar, and somewhat strange, to me when I joined them (in a September wedding) many years ago. When they were kids, each of the 8 siblings got smacked on the behind by all the others every birthday – smacked for the number of years they were celebrating! They also each received one dollar in a birthday card from their parents; whether 1 year old or 18, it was always $1. The parents stopped doing that years ago, but my sentimental husband keeps up the practice. The tradition of which I’m most fond, however, also continues, and it extends to in-laws like me. Each of the other siblings and their families all call the one having the birthday and sing Happy Birthday – often accompanied by kazoos, drums, and even, on one memorable occasion, an oboe! It’s great fun, and even in these days of Zoom, they continue to do it by phone.

    Reply
  31. Did that second illustration trigger memories for the women my age who devoured The Lost Queen of Egypt (many times) back in our early teens, late childhood? (don’t know about you, but I’ve sneaked in a read every couple of years since then…and now there’s an e-book edition, (which sadly doesn’t have the illustrations).
    I could almost swear that one of the lovely illustrations in that book was a pen sketch of this very scene, with Pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen, the famed Nefertiti, dandling their children.
    As for birthdays, mine was a couple of weeks ago, and my ex texted his surprise that I still celebrate…his circle don’t for some reason (maybe the pandemic).
    That Victorian birthday party looks pretty rowdy to me…too bad we can’t join them.
    Cheers, Faith

    Reply
  32. Did that second illustration trigger memories for the women my age who devoured The Lost Queen of Egypt (many times) back in our early teens, late childhood? (don’t know about you, but I’ve sneaked in a read every couple of years since then…and now there’s an e-book edition, (which sadly doesn’t have the illustrations).
    I could almost swear that one of the lovely illustrations in that book was a pen sketch of this very scene, with Pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen, the famed Nefertiti, dandling their children.
    As for birthdays, mine was a couple of weeks ago, and my ex texted his surprise that I still celebrate…his circle don’t for some reason (maybe the pandemic).
    That Victorian birthday party looks pretty rowdy to me…too bad we can’t join them.
    Cheers, Faith

    Reply
  33. Did that second illustration trigger memories for the women my age who devoured The Lost Queen of Egypt (many times) back in our early teens, late childhood? (don’t know about you, but I’ve sneaked in a read every couple of years since then…and now there’s an e-book edition, (which sadly doesn’t have the illustrations).
    I could almost swear that one of the lovely illustrations in that book was a pen sketch of this very scene, with Pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen, the famed Nefertiti, dandling their children.
    As for birthdays, mine was a couple of weeks ago, and my ex texted his surprise that I still celebrate…his circle don’t for some reason (maybe the pandemic).
    That Victorian birthday party looks pretty rowdy to me…too bad we can’t join them.
    Cheers, Faith

    Reply
  34. Did that second illustration trigger memories for the women my age who devoured The Lost Queen of Egypt (many times) back in our early teens, late childhood? (don’t know about you, but I’ve sneaked in a read every couple of years since then…and now there’s an e-book edition, (which sadly doesn’t have the illustrations).
    I could almost swear that one of the lovely illustrations in that book was a pen sketch of this very scene, with Pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen, the famed Nefertiti, dandling their children.
    As for birthdays, mine was a couple of weeks ago, and my ex texted his surprise that I still celebrate…his circle don’t for some reason (maybe the pandemic).
    That Victorian birthday party looks pretty rowdy to me…too bad we can’t join them.
    Cheers, Faith

    Reply
  35. Did that second illustration trigger memories for the women my age who devoured The Lost Queen of Egypt (many times) back in our early teens, late childhood? (don’t know about you, but I’ve sneaked in a read every couple of years since then…and now there’s an e-book edition, (which sadly doesn’t have the illustrations).
    I could almost swear that one of the lovely illustrations in that book was a pen sketch of this very scene, with Pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen, the famed Nefertiti, dandling their children.
    As for birthdays, mine was a couple of weeks ago, and my ex texted his surprise that I still celebrate…his circle don’t for some reason (maybe the pandemic).
    That Victorian birthday party looks pretty rowdy to me…too bad we can’t join them.
    Cheers, Faith

    Reply

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