are various traditions surrounding birthdays, some of which are
described below. You may recognize some of the customs, while others
will be very unfamiliar. There may also be special traditions in your
family or a friend's family that do not appear below. Family history,
culture, language and economic status are all details that affect the
way a person observes the anniversary of their birth. Two of the most
significant factors throughout history, however, have been geographic
location and spiritual beliefs. The following customs have been divided
according to these two categories. Some traditions are quite similar in
many parts of the world; birthday candles which carry wishes up to God,
birthday games which gauge how much more a child can do versus last
year, and birthday pinches or taps which ensure good luck for the
coming year. Some traditions are more specific to certain countries.
- In many African cultures, the day a child is born is not observed as
a special day. Instead, when African children reach a certain age, they
are initiated into the community. This allows them to learn about the
laws of their culture and participate in ancient rituals. Coming-of-age
initiations are commonly done in groups rather than with individual
children. Each year, Asante people in Ghana celebrate krada (meaning
Soul Day) on the day of the week that they were born. This observance
involves a cleansing ritual intended to purify the inner soul. On a
person's krada, he or she wakes up early and washes using a special
leaf soaked overnight in water. An afternoon feast with family and
friends is held in the person's honor, and the celebrant usually
dresses in clothing with a white background.
- Dance the waltz at 15. When girls turn 15 they have a huge party and
dance the waltz with their father and other boys. Children in Argentina
receive pulls on the earlobe for their birthday. Traditionally, they
get one pull for each year of their life.
Pulls on the earlobe. The birthday child receives a pull on the earlobe
for each year they have been alive. The birthday person also gives the
first slice of cake to his/her most special friend or relative, usually
mom or dad.
Greasing the nose with butter or margarine. In Atlantic Canada (Nova
Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland) the birthday child is
ambushed and their nose is greased for good luck. The greased nose
makes the child too slippery for bad luck to catch them. This tradition
is reputed to be of Scottish decent. Birthday punches. In Quebec the
birthday person receives a punch for each year they are alive and then
one for good luck.
China, people believe that tigers protect children. Family members
bring newborns special food and present them with gifts of clothing or
toys decorated with tigers. When a Chinese girl or boy turns one year
old, a variety of objects and toys are placed on the floor around the
child. According to ancient beliefs, the object that the child chooses
is a symbol foreshadowing the profession he or she will pursue in life.
Noodles for Lunch. The birthday child pays respect to his/her parents
and receives a gift of money. Friends and relatives are invited to
lunch and noodles are served to wish the birthday child a long life.
Food, music, piñatas and lots of people. The celebrations are very
similar to the United States; food, decorations, gifts, piñatas, cake,
candles, "happy birthday" song and games. But a lot of people are
invited including neighbors, friends, co-workers and family even if
they don't have kids around the birthday child's age.
- Flying Flags. A flag is flown outside a window to designate that
someone who lives in that house is having a birthday. Presents are
placed around the child's bed while they are sleeping so they will see
them immediately upon awakening.
- Pink Dress. When a girl turns 15 there is a great celebration and the
girl wears a pink dress. The father puts on the birthday girls first
pair of high heels and dances the waltz with her while 14 maids and 14
boys also dance the waltz.
- In medieval times, objects such as coins and thimbles were mixed into
the batter. People believed that the person who got the coin would be
wealthy, while the unlucky finder of the thimble would never marry.
Today, small figures, fake coins and small candies are more common.
Guests are warned ahead of time as well, so no one injuries their teeth
or swallows a tiny treasure. Also, when its your birthday your friends
give you the "bumps" they lift you in the air by your hands and feet
and raise you up and down to the floor, one for each year then one for
luck, two for luck and three for the old man's coconut!
- Egyptian birthday parties are filled with dancing and singing when a
child turns one year old. Flowers and fruit are used to decorate the
party as symbols of life and growth.
- Candles left burning for the day. A member of the birthday person’s
family wakes up at sunrise and lights the candles on the birthday cake.
There are as many candles as the years of age of the birthday person
plus one for good luck. The candles are left burning all day long.
After dinner that night then everyone sings the birthday song and the
birthday person blows out the candles. If all of the candles are blown
out in one try then the wish of the birthday person will come true.
Presents are then opened and the party starts.
Sweeping the stairs of city hall. When men reach the age of 30 and they
still don't have a girlfriend that they have to sweep the stairs of the
city hall. All there friends will throw rubble on the stairs and when
you're finished they'll throw some more rubble there. This way every
girl can see that this man reached the age of 30 and still doesn't have
a girlfriend (and that he can clean a house very well!).
- Special dishes. Chicken, duck or lamb curry with rice are the main
dishes at the birthday celebration. A family member usually bakes a
fruit, black or sponge for the birthday boy/girl to cut. The person
celebrating their birthday will wear something fancy.
Crown Years. Special year birthdays such as 5, 10, 15, 20, 21 are
called "crown" years. The birthday child receives an especially large
gift on a crown year birthday. The family also decorates the birthday
child's chair at the dining room table with seasonal flowers or paper
streamers, paper flowers and balloons. At school the birthday child can
give their classmates something to eat and the teacher makes the child
a birthday hat, often made of paper streamers or paper flowers. Holland
hangs Birthday Calendars to remind them of the birth dates of all their
family and friends. When a Dutch person is unable to visit a birthday
child on their special day, a card is always sent to wish the child
well. Adults often bring a birthday cake to work to share with
co-workers on their special day.
Hong Kong - Hong Kong and some
other Chinese communities, special noodles are served for lunch in
honor of the birthday child. The noodles are extra-long to symbolize a
Colored dress and chocolates. At school the birthday child wears a
colored dress and passes out chocolates to the entire class, with the
help of a trusted friend.
Birthday Bumps. The birthday child is lifted upside down and "bumped"
on the floor for good luck. The number of bumps given is the age of the
child plus one for extra good luck.
Chair Raising. A small child sits in a chair while grown-ups raise and
lower it a number of times corresponding to the child's age, plus one
for good luck. (Bar Mitzvah is celebrated after the 13th birthday for
Jewish boys. Bat Mitzvah is celebrated after the 12th birthday for
Jewish girls). At the age of 13 (12 for girls), Jewish children become
obligated to observe the commandments. The bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah
formally marks the child's acceptance of that obligation and recognizes
the new, responsible adult as a member of the Jewish community. Bar
mitzvah and bat mitzvah also bestow the right to lead religious
services, to count in a minyan (the minimum number of people needed to
perform certain parts of religious services), to form binding
contracts, to testify before religious courts, and to marry.
mitzvah translates to "son of the commandments." Bat mitzvah
translates to "daughter of the commandments." Preparation
for the public ceremony usually takes from one to four years or more of
Hebrew and religious studies. Today, the bar mitzvah celebrant does
much more than say a blessing. The celebrant may pray traditional
chants, read from the Torah, lead part of the service, or lead certain
prayers. The boy usually makes a speech, which traditionally begins
with, "Today I am a man." The father recites a blessing thanking God
for removing the burden of being responsible for the son's sins. In
Orthodox faiths, women are not allowed to take part in the service or
read from the Torah, so the bat mitzvah, if celebrated, may involve the
girl making a speech after the Torah is put away or it may be simply a
party. In other movements of Judaism, girls participate in the same way
as boys. In Conservative synagogues, the bar or bat mitzvah celebrant
leads the entire community through the service, which includes reciting
Hebrew and English prayers, ritual blessings and readings from the
Torah. Reform congregations vary the amount of responsibility the child
has. Some boys and girls conduct the whole service; others simply say
special prayers and blessings. Most families host a reception following
the religious ceremony. This is a time for the entire Jewish community
and their guests to congratulate the new member on his or her
accomplishments. An evening party for invited guests generally follows.
Some parties are small, casual get-togethers while others are large,
formal affairs complete with a sit-down dinner, music and
entertainment. It is never too late to have a bar or bat mitzvah
ceremony. People who were never publicly recognized through the
ceremony as children may choose to study and hold a service as adults.
Italy - Pulling ears. The child's ears are pulled as many times as how old they are turning.
- Irish children are given "Birthday Bumps" in honor of their birthday.
While held upside down, the birthday celebrant is gently bumped on the
floor one time for every year of their age - plus one extra for good
Japan - Japanese children turn 3, 5, or 7, it is thought
to be especially lucky. They are allowed to participate in the upcoming
Shichi-go-san Festival (meaning the "Seven-Five-Three"
Festival), celebrated annually on November 15. During this festival,
children and their families visit a shrine or other place of worship,
give thanks for good health, and ask to be blessed with continued
well-being in the future. Afterwards, a family will often a throw a
party and bestow gifts upon the child. For this occasion, girls and
boys always dress in their finest clothes, which may be traditional
kimonos or western-style clothing. The birthday child wears entirely
new clothes to mark the occasion.
Korea - Paegil (the 100th day
after a child's birth) is a day of feasting for the child's family.
Similarly, on a Korean child's first birthday, called tol, a feast is
held in his or her honor. Family and friends gather to enjoy food
together and offer the one-year-old money as a gift.
Latin America -
In several Latino cultures, a girl's 15th birthday, called a
quinceañera, marks her passage into adulthood. This celebration often
includes a religious ceremony at church, in which the young lady
recognizes her heritage and her spiritual journey. Many quinceañeras
include a candle-lighting ceremony, where a young woman illuminates her
parents' candles using the flame of her own candle. In turn, her
parents light the candles of their parents, and so on. In some Latin
American countries, a young woman changes her shoes from flats to heels
during the ceremony.
Lithuania - Garlands and lifting the chair.
A garland is hung around the entire door of the home of the birthday
person. The birthday person sits in a decorated chair and family
members lift them up to three times.
Mexico - Piñatas. The
piñata, usually made out of paper maché and in the form of an animal,
is filled with goodies and hung from the ceiling. The birthday child is
blindfolded and hits the piñata until it is cracked open. All the
children share the goodies. The song Las Mañanitas is sung. Also, when
a daughter is 15, the birthday is celebrated with a special mass in her
honor. A party is then given to introduce her to everyone as a young
woman. The father dances a waltz with her. People believe that the
child who breaks open the piñata will have good luck.
Nepal -Mark on
the forehead. A certain mixture of rice yogurt and color is placed on
the birthday child's forehead for good luck.
New Zealand -
Birthday claps. After the birthday cake is lit, the happy birthday song
is sung loudly and often out of tune and then the person birthday
person receives a clap for each year they have been alive and then one
for good luck.
Norway - Birthday day. The birthday child stands
out in front of their class and chooses a friend to share a little
dance while the rest of the class sings a happy birthday song.
- Piñatas and large parties. The piñata is the most important item.
They are usually made to resemble a character to correspond with a
theme. It is filled with candy and confetti and is either hit with a
stick or there are ribbons on it to pull. When the cake is served, the
happy birthday song is often performed in two languages, Spanish and
English. The cake is served with ice cream. The extended family is
invited and sometimes up to 100 children are invited.
- Mixture of East and West. Birthday cakes are baked in various sizes
and shapes. Filipino families display blinking colored lights to show
that someone is having a birthday at their home. The whole family
usually goes to church together to thank god, and a celebration with
close family and friends may follow. The later celebration includes
noodles representing long life, balloon decorations and piñatas.
Rico - Taps on the arm. The child gets tapped on the arm for each birth
year. A big party which includes a formal dinner is held.
- Birthday Pies. Instead of a birthday cake, many Russian child receive
a birthday pie with a birthday greeting carved into the crust.
Arabia - People do not observe birthdays due to spiritual beliefs.
Religious holidays and weddings, however, are occasions for great
Scandinavia - Danish people fly the country's flag
outside their home to signify that someone in the family is having a
birthday. Gifts are placed around a child's bed while they are asleep,
so presents will be the first thing in view when the child wakes. On
their birthday, a Norwegian child dances in front of the class with a
friend while the rest of the students sing a song to wish them a happy
birthday. Norway's national flag is also displayed outside the home of
a birthday person. When important people have birthdays, the streets in
Norway are decorated with flags. Like Danish and Norwegian people,
Swedes like to use their national flag to decorate on birthdays and
special occasions. Swedish children are often served breakfast in bed.
Birthday cakes in Sweden are similar to pound cakes and are decorated
Scotland - A pound note and a soft smack. A
pound note is given for every year old the child is plus an additional
pound for good luck. A soft smack on the bottom is also given for each
South Africa - Presentation of a key at age twenty-one. On
the twenty-first birthday a key made of anything from paper to aluminum
foil to silver to gold is presented by the parents as a sign that the
child is ready to unlock the door to their future.
Spain (Spanish /
Latin) The Quinceañera is the Latina coming-of-age celebration on a
girl's 15th birthday. The word "quinceañera" is derived from the
Spanish words "quince" for 15 and "años" for years. The Quinceañera is
one of the few universal Latin American occasions, celebrated from
Mexico to Argentina. In the United States the tradition thrives,
particularly among second and third generation Hispanic girls. The
Quinceañera has its origins many centuries ago when both boys and girls
participated in rites of passage. To prepare for "womanhood," girls
were separated from other children at the age of 15 so the elder women
could teach them about their future roles as members of family and
community. During the official rites of passage, the community would
thank the gods for the future wives and mothers, and the young women
would vow to serve the community. Later, missionaries turned the event
into a personal affirmation of faith by the young women
and a pledge
to become good Christian wives and mothers. A church celebration became
an important part of the occasion. Today, the Quinceañera celebration
often is a lavish party that includes a mariachi band, a feast and many
guests �?much like a wedding. The young woman wears an elaborate dress
in pink, white, light blue or lavender. Traditions include receiving a
church blessing, having 14 attendants and escorts to represent the
previous 14 years of life, presenting a porcelain doll to a younger
sister to symbolize leaving childhood behind, changing from flats into
high-heeled shoes to represent becoming a young woman, and dancing the
first dance with the young woman's father.
United States -
(North America) Throughout history, Native American tribes have placed
significance on milestones in a child's development rather than the day
he or she was born. The day a child takes its first step is cause for
just as much rejoicing as the day he or she accepts the
responsibilities of an adult, gets married, becomes a parent, etc. The
majority of American children, however, celebrate birthdays with a cake
topped with lighted candles. Most families use the candles to represent
how old a person is turning, i.e., one candle for a one-year-old, etc.
When the cake is set before the guest of honor, he or she is supposed
to make a wish, without telling anyone what it is. After making a wish,
he or she tries to blow out the candles. If all the candles go out with
one breath, it is believed that the wish will come true! Some children
receive birthday "spankings", which are were originally based on
superstition, but are now more of a birthday
prank or a joke.
Hundreds of years ago, spankings were given for each year of the
birthday child's life. Beyond that number, a child received another
spanking to grow on, one to live on, one to eat on, one to be happy on,
and yet another spanking to get married on. At one time, it was
considered back luck if the birthday celebrant was not spanked because
it was believed to "soften up the body for the tomb." Historians are
unsure if the practice of swatting the birthday girl or boy was treated
as a joke, as people view it today. Singing "Happy Birthday to You" has
also been a long-standing tradition on birthdays as well. It was
written by two American sisters in 1893, and has been translated into
several languages around the world. Cake, candles and song.
- A waltz at age 15 for a girl. The principal ritual of a birthday is
the cake with candles and lights out, with the eternal song "Happy
Birthday to you..." At the end of the song, the birthday person blows
out the candles and all guests applaud or cheer, some make jokes,
whistle loudly, and touch the birthday person's shoulder or head. When
a girl reaches the age of 15, she puts on a formal dress and dances a
waltz with possible suitors.
Vietnam - Everyone's birthday is
celebrated on new years day. Not only is Tet the beginning of a New
Year, it is also everyone's birthday. The Vietnamese do not know or
acknowledge the exact day they were born. A baby turns one on Tet no
matter when he/she was born that year. Children say they were born in
the year of the symbol of the lunar calendar for that year. On the
first morning of Tet, adults congratulate children on becoming a year
older by presenting them with red envelopes that contain "Lucky Money,"
or li xi. These envelopes are given to the children by parents,
siblings, relatives and close friends.