In a nod to superstition, it is customary to express good wishes and good luck to the birthday person, using phrases such as ‘many happy returns of the day’. Once, birthday greetings were given in person or in a letter or even in a poem. The practice of sending birthday cards began in the late 19th century, and birthday telegrams were sent from the early 20th century.
By the 1930s a person turning 100 would receive birthday wishes from the sovereign, the governor-general, the prime minister and other dignitaries. Centenarians were often interviewed by journalists and quizzed on the secret of their longevity.
In the 19th century, good wishes were often the only thing people received on their birthday. Gradually it became more common to give presents. In 1868 a little girl living in Canterbury was delighted to receive from family members and friends a riding whip, scissors, darning needles, red cotton, a pretty needlecase, a little blue cross and an illustrated hymn book.
In the 19th century adults might celebrate their birthday at the pub or a more sedate birthday-party gathering, depending on age, gender and class. Children’s birthday parties were held mainly in well-off households, and the custom spread gradually. From the early 1900s elaborate parties at home for children became the norm in Pākehā households. Invited children would play organised games and then sit down to a feast of highly coloured sweet and savoury treats. They were usually given a wrapped slice of the birthday cake to take home. Celebrations reached new heights in the early 2000s, with themed parties, special entertainment, parties at venues such as restaurants and playgrounds, and ‘goodie bags’: a small bag of sweets and toys for each child.
The 21st birthday party
Twenty-first birthdays were observed in the 19th century, but they became big events for many New Zealand families in the 20th century. From the 1930s the idea of being given ‘the key to the door’ – the freedom to come and go without parental supervision – dominated parties. Decorated keys were given as presents and featured on cards and the birthday cake. Sometimes guests would sign a large gold key, which was given as a keepsake to the birthday person. In the 2000s in Māori families a carved key or carved pare (lintel) was still a treasured 21st-birthday gift.
Often, people turning 21 had a special studio photograph taken. A less refined custom was to drink a yard-glass (a tall glass holding around 1.4 litres) of beer, often spiked with something stronger. Despite the declining legal and social significance of the 21st birthday, it is still an important occasion for many.
The games we play
Although children’s birthday parties have changed in many ways, some features remain the same. Musical chairs, charades and blind man’s buff – all games that were popular in the late 19th century – are still played at children’s parties in the 2000s.
Cake and candles
The high point of most birthday parties is the ceremonial presentation of an iced birthday cake decorated with lit candles – one for each year of the person’s life. Traditionally, the person has to blow out the candles with one breath while making a secret wish. If the candles are not blown out at the first attempt, the wish will not come true. In New Zealand, birthday cakes with candles, a custom of Germanic origin, were popular from the mid-1800s.
The presentation of the cake is accompanied by the singing of ‘Happy birthday to you’ – the internationally recognised ditty composed by two American sisters in 1893. Māori will often sing ‘Hari huritau ki a koe’ and ‘Rā whānau koa’, both to the tune of ‘Happy birthday’. ‘Happy birthday’ may be followed by ‘Why was she born so beautiful?’ or ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. Sometimes, guests clap once for each year of the person’s life. The music-hall song ‘I’m twenty-one today’ used to be popular at 21st-birthday parties. At some Māori birthdays, each guest has to sing a song to get a piece of the cake.