What’s with the birthday brouhaha?

I’ve never really understood the seemingly psychotic obsession with birthdays and aging. After all, it is something that will occur regardless of what you do. You will get older. A date on the calendar that marks your entrance into the world will pass every 365 days. So what’s the big deal?

Now, I’m no nihilist. I don’t take the negative view that each birthday brings you one day closer to death (which while somewhat morbid is certainly true). On the other hand I’ve long since passed the age of someone that feels the need to celebrate the marking of time on my personal wheel of life. When you look at the basic aspects of a birthday celebration there doesn’t really seem to be all that much special about it. Modern society has literally obliterated the need for such festivities in countries with any decent standard of living. It occurred to me in the celebration of my own birthday yesterday that there isn’t a single thing that I need a birthday party to do any more.

Cake – Once upon a time sugar and sugary treats were something only the very wealthy could regularly afford. To common people cakes and desserts were a true treat. Something you had to save for a very special occasion. Well, most people’s lives were devoid of any such thing. Thus when someone turned a year older it was a great time to go the extra little mile and splurge on a tiny slice of decadence.

Fast forward to the modern middle class world of ridiculously over stocked supermarkets. Now, there is no lack of cheap sugary treats that even the lower income amongst us can afford. In fact, sugar has become so ubiquitous that you find it in everything from ketchup & mustard to milk & juice. Even with the demise of the Hostess there is no lack of aisles and aisles of grocery shelves filled with sugary snacks. So is a cake really all that neat and do we really need an excuse to eat more sugar? I’d argue the answer is no.

Libations – For the more adult among us birthdays are usually accompanied by all manner of alcoholic beverages. This too though has become something the average person can obtain with ease. So there really is little need to hold a special festival to consume varying amounts of fluids that were once the province of the powerful.

Gifts – In the days before consumer culture the idea of owning much of anything was pretty much a pipe dream. Children played with the world around them. Sticks became swords, guns, fishing poles, and bats. A little mud could be sculpted into just about any manner of shapes. In fact, I happen to agree with Wired Magazine’s Geek Dad that some of the coolest toys ever could be found just sitting around the home. Yet, parents and friends use the birthday as an excuse to give gifts.

As an adult, my toys are a bit more expensive. I usually ask my friends to forego the purchasing of gifts on my birthday. They are my friends though and that means they are often similar to me in demeanor….which is to say, they are hard headed and buy me stuff anyway. Not that I’m ungrateful but I really don’t see the need to exchange gifts as adults.

Gathering – Now, this is one part of the birthday I can understand. Having friends and relatives over to share some time is one of my favorite activities. The only question I have is why we need a special occasion to do it? If you need a unique day of the year to gather the people in your life to a central location and enjoy each other’s company you may want to reassess your priorities. If the only time of the year you stop and take a moment from your busy life to spend a couple of hours at your friend’s house is when they get another year older you really should take a step back and reexamine a few things. Think about it this way, only the severally screwed up lay in their death bed and ask to be surrounded by their possessions. While inviting people over for a birthday party is certainly fine it shouldn’t be the only time in a year that you set aside to celebrate your relationships.

When you look at the history of birthday traditions they were primarily for kings and gods. Like many of our modern traditions they came from the bourgeois attempting to imitate the upper class. This isn’t an attempt to pass judgement, it is just a examination of the reasoning behind why we do what we do to this day.

Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. My wife arranged a party get-together for my 36th just yesterday. It was a wonderful time. My hard headed friends gave me gifts. Libations were poured. Cake was eaten. It was a wonderful time and I do appreciate the sentiment but when I thought about this morning what about my being on this earth another year was truly worth celebrating? I hadn’t done anything particularly unique this past year. I had simply gone about my day-to-day existence.

Steve Jobs once said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” Well, I’ve decided that to be honestly worthy of a birthday celebration, to really and truly deserve the gifts and cakes and libations, I should probably try and do more dent making.

The celebration of the birth of a benevolent ruler or god was because of their contribution to society at large. While I’m sure I’ve made the lives of my friends and family a little better simply by being on this earth I don’t know that makes the last 12 months of my life blowout worthy. So, as I’m ought to do, I’ve decided that this year I’m going to do something that makes an impact outside of the little world I live in. It might be to volunteer more. Make more time to mentor, advise, and counsel. Lend my time advocating a worthy cause or simply donating something to charity. I don’t yet know what form it will take but I do know that if people insist on celebrating my mear existence I should probably make my life deserving of all the brouhaha that surrounds the 15th of June every year.

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