Tuesday, 3 April 2012


The birthdays in our family seem to cluster together.  No sooner have we bought gifts, had the day than the next one is upon us. Then we have a big gap until the start of the next cluster.  At least that gives time to save.

But why do we celebrate birthdays?  When we are little it is exciting to be another year older, and then there is the transition from youth to adulthood at age 18 when we are allowed to drink, to drive, to vote...That is one worth celebrating.

But when we reach shall I say 'years of discretion' I'm not sure that we like being reminded we are a year older, or not until our 90s, when the countdown starts to 100, often at a time of frailty, and ill health, and not really caring.

So why celebrate the annual milestone?

Part of the reason is obviously about the day being 'special' to that person. Even if thousands of others were born on that day, the day of one's birth is the day that this person with this particular heritage entered the world.  So perhaps a birthday is a way of marking the uniqueness of the one being celebrated. (I wonder if twins and other multiple births feel this too? And what about those whose birthdate has never been recorded?)

And we are unique in several ways: our genetic heritage, our position in the family, the mix of social and environmental influences that shape our personalities, our shape and appearance.  From what I can understand of genetics, the genetic differences between people are amazingly small, yet for all that we are uniquely ourselves.  Surely that is worth celebrating.

But birthday celebrations are also about belonging: to a family , a friendship network, a community.  They bring people together not only to mark the occasion for the person, but to mark the importance of this person as a member of the group. There is a need to belong so strong that social isolation is seen as a factor in premature death and mental illness. 

I think the lesson for me is to not grumble about being a year older, but to celebrate the fact that I am alive, and that I have a place in my family and network of frineds, and that little community likes to celebrate my membership of it.  It's not the cards or gifts or candles on the cake, it is the recognition of the person and the group that is important.

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