Reasons to celebrate birthdays
The celebration of birthdays is an ancient tradition, common to many cultures. Like other anniversaries, it relies on accurate measurement of time, and is thought to have originated with the development of the calendar in ancient times. It is one of many customs that European settlers brought with them to New Zealand in the mid-19th century.
Birthdays were once governed by superstitions, which can be seen in some birthday rituals. One reason for observing the day of birth was that it, like birth itself, was seen as a time of danger. Being surrounded by friends and well-wishers helped to ward off evil spirits. It was important to wish a person well on their birthday. Now a birthday is seen by most people simply as a celebration of an individual’s life.
Orphans’ birthday party
On 13 May 1880 the Lyttelton Orphanage held a collective birthday party for all the children, possibly for reasons of economy or (even more likely) because the birth dates of many were unknown. After a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, toys were distributed and a concert was held. Then, after lollies all round, the orphans went off to bed, apparently ‘brimful of gratitude, and beaming with smiles at the celebration of their general birthday’.1
Registration of births
To mark a birthday, it was necessary to know when you were born. In the 19th century many people did not know their precise birth date. The advent of birth registration in England in 1837 and New Zealand in 1848 changed that. For Māori, registration of births did not begin officially until 1913, and was not universal until after the Second World War. Probably for this and other cultural reasons, Māori were slower to adopt birthday customs.
During the 19th century the status of children improved and childhood was increasingly seen as a special stage of life. One outcome was that children’s birthdays began to be celebrated annually (rather than just at major turning points) for the first time in history.
The 21st birthday
The 21st birthday, often called ‘coming of age’, once had special significance. Until 1970 in New Zealand, 21 was the age of majority, when a person became legally independent of all parental control. In the early 2000s the legal age of majority was 20, but the 21st birthday was still seen by many as the threshold of adulthood.
People born on 29 February in a leap year technically have a birthday just once every four years, though many celebrate every non-leap year on the 28th. Such people are sometimes referred to as ‘leaplings’.
Other significant birthdays
The first birthday was always important – perhaps because by then the baby had passed the most vulnerable stage of infancy. Other noteworthy childhood birthdays now are the fifth – in New Zealand the birthday before most children start school – and the 10th, when a child reaches ‘double figures’. Teenagers look forward to their 16th birthday, when they can leave school, get a job and a driver’s licence and marry, and their 18th, after which they can vote, buy alcohol and cigarettes and enter into contracts.
Many adults regard a birthday ending in zero as noteworthy because it signals the beginning of a new decade. The age at which a person becomes eligible for superannuation (65 in the early 2000s) is also celebrated.
The 80th birthday is often seen as an opportunity to celebrate a person’s achievements. Reaching the age of 100, still relatively rare, is almost always accompanied by rejoicing and public attention.