Birthdays through History

Birthday cake

The Birthday Cake, Pancraz Koerle, 1875, private collection

Susan here. September and October are busy birthday months in our family – lots of Virgos and Librans! We're celebrating a special birthday this week, with cake and candles and gifts for this lovely person. What about birthdays throughout history? Were birthday celebrations as important then as now? 

Amenhotep neferEarly cultures took note of significant dates and found ways to mark the significance of births. Some of the earliest references 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).

Regnault salomeKing 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.
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.

Alma tadema
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 birthday cardDetouring 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. 

Medeival libraIn 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).

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.”

Birthday cake detailMoving 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. Regency-family-dinner

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. 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?   

25 thoughts on “Birthdays through History”

  1. What a lovely post, Susan…thank you! In my family, we celebrate with cake or perhaps a visit to a nearby bakery for a piece of tiramisu, some cards, and gifts. My family tends to appreciate it if I skip the singing! (My parents, who were Dutch, would always call and sing a Dutch birthday song.)
    Happy October birthday to you, Susan!

    Reply
  2. What a lovely post, Susan…thank you! In my family, we celebrate with cake or perhaps a visit to a nearby bakery for a piece of tiramisu, some cards, and gifts. My family tends to appreciate it if I skip the singing! (My parents, who were Dutch, would always call and sing a Dutch birthday song.)
    Happy October birthday to you, Susan!

    Reply
  3. What a lovely post, Susan…thank you! In my family, we celebrate with cake or perhaps a visit to a nearby bakery for a piece of tiramisu, some cards, and gifts. My family tends to appreciate it if I skip the singing! (My parents, who were Dutch, would always call and sing a Dutch birthday song.)
    Happy October birthday to you, Susan!

    Reply
  4. What a lovely post, Susan…thank you! In my family, we celebrate with cake or perhaps a visit to a nearby bakery for a piece of tiramisu, some cards, and gifts. My family tends to appreciate it if I skip the singing! (My parents, who were Dutch, would always call and sing a Dutch birthday song.)
    Happy October birthday to you, Susan!

    Reply
  5. What a lovely post, Susan…thank you! In my family, we celebrate with cake or perhaps a visit to a nearby bakery for a piece of tiramisu, some cards, and gifts. My family tends to appreciate it if I skip the singing! (My parents, who were Dutch, would always call and sing a Dutch birthday song.)
    Happy October birthday to you, Susan!

    Reply
  6. Happy Birthday Susan!
    Birthdays are very important in our family. We try to make the day special for the one who is celebrating. Just simple things like a favourite dinner and a movie or board game. Depending on who it is. We tend to try and do something a little extra for any of the big ones. This year, at the end of the year, I will be the big 60 and early next year my daughter will be the big 40 so we’re trying to think of something to do together to mark the occasion. It’s still in the works 🙂
    Great post!

    Reply
  7. Happy Birthday Susan!
    Birthdays are very important in our family. We try to make the day special for the one who is celebrating. Just simple things like a favourite dinner and a movie or board game. Depending on who it is. We tend to try and do something a little extra for any of the big ones. This year, at the end of the year, I will be the big 60 and early next year my daughter will be the big 40 so we’re trying to think of something to do together to mark the occasion. It’s still in the works 🙂
    Great post!

    Reply
  8. Happy Birthday Susan!
    Birthdays are very important in our family. We try to make the day special for the one who is celebrating. Just simple things like a favourite dinner and a movie or board game. Depending on who it is. We tend to try and do something a little extra for any of the big ones. This year, at the end of the year, I will be the big 60 and early next year my daughter will be the big 40 so we’re trying to think of something to do together to mark the occasion. It’s still in the works 🙂
    Great post!

    Reply
  9. Happy Birthday Susan!
    Birthdays are very important in our family. We try to make the day special for the one who is celebrating. Just simple things like a favourite dinner and a movie or board game. Depending on who it is. We tend to try and do something a little extra for any of the big ones. This year, at the end of the year, I will be the big 60 and early next year my daughter will be the big 40 so we’re trying to think of something to do together to mark the occasion. It’s still in the works 🙂
    Great post!

    Reply
  10. Happy Birthday Susan!
    Birthdays are very important in our family. We try to make the day special for the one who is celebrating. Just simple things like a favourite dinner and a movie or board game. Depending on who it is. We tend to try and do something a little extra for any of the big ones. This year, at the end of the year, I will be the big 60 and early next year my daughter will be the big 40 so we’re trying to think of something to do together to mark the occasion. It’s still in the works 🙂
    Great post!

    Reply
  11. April was the birthday month in my family – all four of us! My Mom was born on the tenth, my Dad (and my sister!) were both born on the ninth, and I brought up the rear on the twenty – fourth. When I got married my mother in law joined us on the twenty – ninth. My husband was all by himself in January so he probably got more presents! The big deal in our family was the singing of Happy Birthday – as loudly and as badly as possible. It didn’t save you to be in another country – they did it over the phone!
    Loved the post!

    Reply
  12. April was the birthday month in my family – all four of us! My Mom was born on the tenth, my Dad (and my sister!) were both born on the ninth, and I brought up the rear on the twenty – fourth. When I got married my mother in law joined us on the twenty – ninth. My husband was all by himself in January so he probably got more presents! The big deal in our family was the singing of Happy Birthday – as loudly and as badly as possible. It didn’t save you to be in another country – they did it over the phone!
    Loved the post!

    Reply
  13. April was the birthday month in my family – all four of us! My Mom was born on the tenth, my Dad (and my sister!) were both born on the ninth, and I brought up the rear on the twenty – fourth. When I got married my mother in law joined us on the twenty – ninth. My husband was all by himself in January so he probably got more presents! The big deal in our family was the singing of Happy Birthday – as loudly and as badly as possible. It didn’t save you to be in another country – they did it over the phone!
    Loved the post!

    Reply
  14. April was the birthday month in my family – all four of us! My Mom was born on the tenth, my Dad (and my sister!) were both born on the ninth, and I brought up the rear on the twenty – fourth. When I got married my mother in law joined us on the twenty – ninth. My husband was all by himself in January so he probably got more presents! The big deal in our family was the singing of Happy Birthday – as loudly and as badly as possible. It didn’t save you to be in another country – they did it over the phone!
    Loved the post!

    Reply
  15. April was the birthday month in my family – all four of us! My Mom was born on the tenth, my Dad (and my sister!) were both born on the ninth, and I brought up the rear on the twenty – fourth. When I got married my mother in law joined us on the twenty – ninth. My husband was all by himself in January so he probably got more presents! The big deal in our family was the singing of Happy Birthday – as loudly and as badly as possible. It didn’t save you to be in another country – they did it over the phone!
    Loved the post!

    Reply
  16. Happy Birthday Susan! We always celebrate birthdays for the whole month. So you might as well too!
    Also – except for the main picture at the top – none of the other pictures show for me. On my laptop it says picture could not be displayed because of an error. I accessed on my phone to see if they would show there, but no, they did not.

    Reply
  17. Happy Birthday Susan! We always celebrate birthdays for the whole month. So you might as well too!
    Also – except for the main picture at the top – none of the other pictures show for me. On my laptop it says picture could not be displayed because of an error. I accessed on my phone to see if they would show there, but no, they did not.

    Reply
  18. Happy Birthday Susan! We always celebrate birthdays for the whole month. So you might as well too!
    Also – except for the main picture at the top – none of the other pictures show for me. On my laptop it says picture could not be displayed because of an error. I accessed on my phone to see if they would show there, but no, they did not.

    Reply
  19. Happy Birthday Susan! We always celebrate birthdays for the whole month. So you might as well too!
    Also – except for the main picture at the top – none of the other pictures show for me. On my laptop it says picture could not be displayed because of an error. I accessed on my phone to see if they would show there, but no, they did not.

    Reply
  20. Happy Birthday Susan! We always celebrate birthdays for the whole month. So you might as well too!
    Also – except for the main picture at the top – none of the other pictures show for me. On my laptop it says picture could not be displayed because of an error. I accessed on my phone to see if they would show there, but no, they did not.

    Reply
  21. Mixed feelings.
    When I was young and my mother ran things, she’d always do a birthday cake for each of us – but depending on the kid’s preference, it might not be a cake – two of my brothers liked spice cake, the other liked lemon meringue pie, and I really liked apple pie. She would give us our favorite dinner that night as well. There were small gifts and cards too. My mother loved to entertain but got little scope for it, so I think these days were special for her as well.
    When I read regencies now, when the heroine’s family throw a birthday bash for her, or something significant happens on that day, I read that part with special interest. I like the ones where the whole family celebrates – they make presents, they show up at the parties and make a day of it. My brothers were young men eager to be off to an evening with their friends; they stayed the minimum time and then took off to their teenage lives. Somebody would have given me a book or two as a gift and after thanking everyone I would go in my room and read. So I never turned into much of a party person.

    Reply
  22. Mixed feelings.
    When I was young and my mother ran things, she’d always do a birthday cake for each of us – but depending on the kid’s preference, it might not be a cake – two of my brothers liked spice cake, the other liked lemon meringue pie, and I really liked apple pie. She would give us our favorite dinner that night as well. There were small gifts and cards too. My mother loved to entertain but got little scope for it, so I think these days were special for her as well.
    When I read regencies now, when the heroine’s family throw a birthday bash for her, or something significant happens on that day, I read that part with special interest. I like the ones where the whole family celebrates – they make presents, they show up at the parties and make a day of it. My brothers were young men eager to be off to an evening with their friends; they stayed the minimum time and then took off to their teenage lives. Somebody would have given me a book or two as a gift and after thanking everyone I would go in my room and read. So I never turned into much of a party person.

    Reply
  23. Mixed feelings.
    When I was young and my mother ran things, she’d always do a birthday cake for each of us – but depending on the kid’s preference, it might not be a cake – two of my brothers liked spice cake, the other liked lemon meringue pie, and I really liked apple pie. She would give us our favorite dinner that night as well. There were small gifts and cards too. My mother loved to entertain but got little scope for it, so I think these days were special for her as well.
    When I read regencies now, when the heroine’s family throw a birthday bash for her, or something significant happens on that day, I read that part with special interest. I like the ones where the whole family celebrates – they make presents, they show up at the parties and make a day of it. My brothers were young men eager to be off to an evening with their friends; they stayed the minimum time and then took off to their teenage lives. Somebody would have given me a book or two as a gift and after thanking everyone I would go in my room and read. So I never turned into much of a party person.

    Reply
  24. Mixed feelings.
    When I was young and my mother ran things, she’d always do a birthday cake for each of us – but depending on the kid’s preference, it might not be a cake – two of my brothers liked spice cake, the other liked lemon meringue pie, and I really liked apple pie. She would give us our favorite dinner that night as well. There were small gifts and cards too. My mother loved to entertain but got little scope for it, so I think these days were special for her as well.
    When I read regencies now, when the heroine’s family throw a birthday bash for her, or something significant happens on that day, I read that part with special interest. I like the ones where the whole family celebrates – they make presents, they show up at the parties and make a day of it. My brothers were young men eager to be off to an evening with their friends; they stayed the minimum time and then took off to their teenage lives. Somebody would have given me a book or two as a gift and after thanking everyone I would go in my room and read. So I never turned into much of a party person.

    Reply
  25. Mixed feelings.
    When I was young and my mother ran things, she’d always do a birthday cake for each of us – but depending on the kid’s preference, it might not be a cake – two of my brothers liked spice cake, the other liked lemon meringue pie, and I really liked apple pie. She would give us our favorite dinner that night as well. There were small gifts and cards too. My mother loved to entertain but got little scope for it, so I think these days were special for her as well.
    When I read regencies now, when the heroine’s family throw a birthday bash for her, or something significant happens on that day, I read that part with special interest. I like the ones where the whole family celebrates – they make presents, they show up at the parties and make a day of it. My brothers were young men eager to be off to an evening with their friends; they stayed the minimum time and then took off to their teenage lives. Somebody would have given me a book or two as a gift and after thanking everyone I would go in my room and read. So I never turned into much of a party person.

    Reply

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