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.
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
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.
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, 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Celebration of wedding anniversaries is a tradition of Germanic origin that dates back to the middle ages. After 25 years of marriage a husband would present his wife with a silver wreath, and after 50 years, a gold wreath. From this custom emerged the recognition of silver and golden wedding anniversaries. Initially, only these two anniversaries were celebrated – the others generally passed unremarked.
In New Zealand, European settlers brought with them the custom of celebrating silver and golden wedding anniversaries. These were relatively rare occasions. Low life expectancy (in 1874 it was 48 for Pākehā men and 50 for Pākehā women, and even lower for Māori) meant that it was unusual for both partners to reach a silver, and especially a gold, wedding.
While they published admiring accounts of silver and gold wedding anniversaries, newspapers also regularly ran quite cynical jokes about them. A common theme was the wife complaining that her husband forgot their anniversary. Another was the husband who preferred to forget. This is one joke from 1933:
Wife: Dear, tomorrow is our tenth wedding anniversary. Shall I kill the turkey?
Hubby: No, let him live. He didn’t have anything to do with it.1
During the 19th century, possibly because of growing emphasis on family and home life, it gradually became popular to celebrate other wedding anniversaries. These became associated with gifts made out of different materials, which symbolised the growing value of the marriage relationship and the investment that the couple had made in each other. By the early 1920s the additional anniversaries that were celebrated most commonly were the first (cotton), fifth (wood), 10th (tin), 15th (crystal) and 20th (china). Those few couples who made it to their 75th anniversary gave each other diamonds (later, the 60th anniversary became the diamond wedding). There was continuing discussion about which anniversaries should be celebrated and what gift should be given, with debates reported in New Zealand newspapers.
Retailers seized on the consumer possibilities of celebrating every wedding anniversary. In 1937 the American National Retail Jewellers’ Association published a complete list of the type of gifts to give on each wedding anniversary. This list became the standard one that is still referred to, although modern variants have emerged, along with lists of anniversary gemstones and anniversary flowers.
Silver, gold and diamond wedding anniversaries are still usually marked by a large gathering of friends and family, and couples who have been married for 50 years or more are often profiled in newspapers, a reflection of the value society places on traditional marriage. However, with higher rates of marriage breakdown, fewer people make it to these anniversaries. For many couples, a wedding anniversary is a more personal, low-key occasion, celebrated by an exchange of gifts and a special dinner. Couples who are not formally married may mark other anniversaries in their relationship.
In the 19th century a silver or golden wedding anniversary was an opportunity for people in a district to express their respect for an older married couple. Friends and neighbours would get together to present an ‘address’ – a beautifully hand-lettered and decorated expression of esteem that would often be framed for display. Sometimes they would club together to buy a valuable gift such as a silver tea service. Newspaper accounts of these occasions would often explain when and how the couple arrived in New Zealand. Their joint labours, and the man’s professional achievements, would be described in detail.
In 1938 the Evening Post reported: ‘Within a few hours of celebrating a unique anniversary – 65 years of married life – Mrs George Dabinett died at Milton on Saturday, aged 88. There was to have been a celebration yesterday when the anniversary fell, and 85 guests were invited. Evidently the excitement of the occasion proved too much for Mrs Dabinett.’1
Celebrations often took the form of an afternoon ‘at home’, when the couple would host well-wishers at their residence. As well as tea and cakes and polite conversation, there might be speeches and sometimes prayers. By the later 19th and early 20th centuries, more lavish parties were held. Sometimes couples hired a local hall or other public venue and had an orchestra or band to provide music. The evening’s entertainment included games, cards and dancing as well as speeches. The celebration often concluded with the singing of ‘Auld lang syne’ or ‘For they are jolly good fellows’.
For Māori, the big occasion was the golden anniversary. If the celebration was held on a marae, visitors were welcomed and then entertained at a hākari (feast) interspersed with speeches, impromptu items, toasts and waiata, including ‘He putiputi koe’ (You are a flower) and other favourites. A dance followed, and guests slept overnight in the meeting house.
Silver or golden wedding-anniversary celebrations sometimes involved an element of re-enactment of the original ceremony. An etiquette writer in 1901 advised that women should don their wedding dress for the silver wedding party – possibly a tight squeeze after 25 years. Occasionally men also wore their original wedding garments. In 1906 a Mr Smith from the Wairarapa celebrated his 65th wedding anniversary by sporting his wedding coat, complete with original brass buttons, from 1841.
The celebration dinner was described as a ‘wedding breakfast’ and a cake was cut at its conclusion. This might be a replica of, or decorated with flowers from, the original wedding cake. Sometimes the marriage service was repeated. Now, some couples renew their wedding vows on a special anniversary.
The custom of photographing couples, surrounded by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, developed. From the 1930s newspapers published photographs of couples, particularly those celebrating golden wedding anniversaries. In recent times, these are often accompanied by the couple’s tips for a long-lasting marriage.
People are eligible for congratulatory messages from the Queen, governor-general, prime minister, minister of internal affairs, minister for senior citizens and local MP on their 50th, 55th, 60th, 65th, 70th and 75th wedding anniversaries, and birthdays of 100 years or over. The Queen does not send wedding anniversary congratulations until the couple have been married 60 years, and the governor-general’s birthday messages are limited to the 100th and 105th birthdays. People have to make a formal application for a message, and provide documentary evidence of the anniversary.
Like those celebrating 100th birthdays, by the 1930s couples who reached golden wedding anniversaries received messages from the King and the governor-general. Sometimes the prime minister, chief justice, local MP or other dignitaries added their good wishes. Couples can still receive official congratulations for major wedding anniversaries on application to the Department of Internal Affairs Congratulatory Message Service.
Cameron, Dale. Modern etiquette: a practical guide. New Plymouth: Novum Publications, 2011.
Kiwi kids’ party book: a survival guide for parents. North Shore City: Penguin, 2006.
Perl, Lila. Candles, cakes, and donkey tails: birthday symbols and celebrations. New York: Clarion Books, 1984.
Salmond, Anne. Hui: a study of Māori ceremonial gatherings. Auckland: Reed, 2004.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. A history of children’s play: New Zealand 1840–1950. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1982.