A birthday is the anniversary of the birth of a person.
Birthdays started around 3,000 years before the common era, conceptualised by our good old friends the Egyptians. But not necessarily in the sense that we celebrate them today. Despite the clues in the name, you know, birth-day, day of birth, this isn’t what the Egyptians actually celebrated. When you boil it back down to the origins of birthdays, they were actually celebrating the birth of someone as a god.
The first reliable account of a birthday being recognized comes to us from the Bible. In Genesis, the ancient text states that the Pharaoh was celebrating his birthday. The passage reads:
“Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.” — Genesis 40:20–22
According to Herodotus (5th century BC), of all the days in the year, the one which the Persians celebrate most is their birthday. It was customary to have the board furnished on that day with an ampler supply than common: the richer people eat wholly baked cow, horse, camel, or donkey, while the poorer classes use instead the smaller kinds of cattle.
Like so much of our modern traditions, birthdays have solid roots in old Greek and Roman traditions. The Greeks and Romans gave us the tradition of presents, candles, and parties for birthdays. There is no distinct moment in which these traditions are cemented but rather it is the result of the blending of different traditions over the course of many years.
The Romans baked the first birthday cakes. They made cakes of flour, nuts, yeast and honey to celebrate weddings and the occasional 50th birthday (only if the birthday boy was a famous citizen, and women’s birthdays weren’t celebrated anywhere until the 12th century).
The early Catholic Church deemed birthday festivities to be pagan – more important was the name day, the commemoration of the patron saint whose name was attached to a child upon baptism. After the Protestant Reformation, Western cultures celebrated birthdays of royalty, presidents, and war heroes, but common folk seldom used the occasion of their own birth for special notice.
In the 17th century birthday cakes were made more elaborate with details like icing, layers and decorations, like flowers. However, these kinds of cakes were only affordable by the wealthy, upper class due to the high-priced ingredients. In the 18th century, food and baking utensils became more accessible, and therefore affordable. With that, the price of cakes went down significantly and the number of cakes produced went up considerably.
As with the marketing of birthday cakes, the addition of candles is also attributed to the Germans around the 1700’s when Kinderfesten, birthday celebrations for children, became more common. The custom was to place a candle for each year of their life as well as extra candles to represent years to come.
Not until the 19th century — perhaps around 1860 or 1880 — did middle-class Americans commonly do so, and not until the early 20th century were birthday celebrations a tradition nationwide. In fact, the song “Happy Birthday” is not far beyond its own 100th birthday.
Jesus Christ’s traditional birthday is celebrated as Christmas Eve or Christmas Day around the world, on December 24 or 25, respectively. As some Eastern churches use the Julian calendar, December 25 will fall on January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. These dates are traditional and have no connection with the actual birthday date of Jesus, which is not recorded in the Gospels.
Similarly, the birthdays of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are liturgically celebrated on September 8 and June 24, especially in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions (although for those Eastern Orthodox churches using the Julian calendar the corresponding Gregorian dates are September 21 and July 7 respectively). As with Christmas, the dates of these celebrations are traditional and probably have no connection with the actual birthdays of these individuals.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was born January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria.
Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Groot Zundert, North Brabant, Netherlands.
In North Korea, people do not celebrate birthdays on July 8 and December 17 because these were the dates of the deaths of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, respectively. More than 100,000 North Koreans celebrate displaced birthdays on July 9 and December 18 to avoid these dates.
Birthdays are fairly evenly distributed through the year, with some seasonal effects. In the United States, there tend to be more births in September and October. This may be because there is a holiday season nine months before (the human gestation period is about nine months), or because the longest nights of the year also occur in the Northern Hemisphere nine months before.