History of Birthday Traditions and Birthday Cards

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Sending birthday cards is a custom that began in England about 100 years ago. Today, millions of cards are sent around the world each year to wish family and friends a happy birthday.

Before humans had a way of keeping time, no one paid much attention to the anniversary of important events, such as birthdays. Only when ancient peoples began taking notice of the moon's cycles, did they pay attention to the changing seasons and the pattern that repeated itself over and over. Eventually, the first calendars were formulated in order to mark time changes and other special days. From this tracking system came the ability to celebrate birthdays and other significant anniversaries the same day each year.

Evidence of birthday observances dates back before the rise of Christianity. In pagan cultures, people feared evil spirits - especially on their birthdays. It was a common belief that evil spirits were more dangerous to a person when he or she experienced a change in their daily life, such as turning a year older. As a result, birthdays were merry occasions celebrated with family and friends, who surrounded the person of honor with laughter and joy in order to protect them from evil. Instead of gifts, most guests brought positive thoughts and happy wishes for the upcoming year. However, if well-wishers did bring gifts, it was considered an especially good influence for the birthday person.

Although historians are certain that people have observed their birthdays for quite some time, there are few records of such celebrations that still exist. Of these few descriptions, only those birthdays of kings, high-ranking nobility, and other important figures have been documented. Common people and especially children never celebrated their birth when the idea came about. This trend has been explained by a theory that nobility were the only people wealthy enough to throw such celebrations, and quite possibly were the only ones deemed important enough to have been written about or remembered. Some historians believe these early birthday bashes resulted in the custom of wearing birthday "crowns" as time went on.

Eventually, birthday celebrations became a tradition around the world with young and old, rich or poor. Although birthday customs are quite similar in some countries today, not everyone celebrates in the same way. Different people have incorporated their own rituals into the birthday celebration, based on spiritual beliefs and ancient cultural traditions. While you may find some of them odd, or even humorous, each one is unique.

Birthday Traditions Around the World

There are numerous traditions surrounding birthdays, some of which are described below. You may recognize some of the customs, while others will be very unfamiliar. There may also be special traditions in your family or a friend's family that do not appear below. Family history, culture, language and economic status are all details that affect the way a person observes the anniversary of their birth. Two of the most significant factors throughout history, however, have been geographic location and spiritual beliefs. The following customs have been divided according to these two categories.


In many African cultures, the day a child is born is not observed as a special day. Instead, when African children reach a certain age, they are initiated into the community. This allows them to learn about the laws of their culture and participate in ancient rituals. Coming-of-age initiations are commonly done in groups rather than with individual children.

Each year, Asante people in Ghana celebrate "krada" (meaning "Soul Day") on the day of the week that they were born. This observance involves a cleansing ritual intended to purify the inner soul. On a person's krada, he or she wakes up early and washes using a special leaf soaked overnight in water. An afternoon feast with family and friends is held in the person?s honor, and the celebrant usually dresses in clothing with a white background.

Latin America

In several Latino cultures, a girl's 15th birthday, called a "Quinceanera", marks her passage into adulthood. This celebration often includes a religious ceremony at church, in which the young lady recognizes her heritage and her spiritual journey. Many Quinceaneras include a candle-lighting ceremony, where a young woman illuminates her parents' candles using the flame of her own candle. In turn, her parents light the candles of their parents, and so on. In some Latin American countries, a young woman changes her shoes from flats to heels during the ceremony.

Mexican birthday celebrations feature piñatas filled with candy and small toys. At birthday parties, children take turns hitting the piñata, a hollow figure shaped like an animal, flower, automobile, or other object that is suspended from the ceiling. While blindfolded, kids hit the piñata with a stick until it breaks open. When the treasures rain down on the floor, everyone scrambles to collect them. People believe that the child who breaks open the piñata will have good luck.

Children in Argentina receive pulls on the earlobe for their birthday. Traditionally, they get one pull for each year of their life.

Middle East

Egyptian birthday parties are filled with dancing and singing when a child turns one year old. Flowers and fruit are used to decorate the party as symbols of life and growth.

In Saudi Arabia, people do not observe birthdays due to spiritual beliefs. Religious holidays and weddings, however, are occasions for great celebration.

At an Israeli child's birthday party, he or she sits in a special chair decorated with fresh flowers and greens. To celebrate the child's age, family and friends gather around the chair, lifting and raising it once for each year of life - plus one more for good luck!


When Japanese children turn 7, 5, or 3, it is thought to be especially lucky. They are allowed to participate in the upcoming Shichi-go-san (meaning "Seven-Five-Three") Festival, celebrated annually on November 15. During this festival, children and their families visit a shrine or other place of worship, give thanks for good health, and ask to be blessed with continued well-being in the future. Afterwards, a family will often throw a party and bestow gifts upon the child. For this occasion, girls and boys always dress in their finest clothes, which may be traditional kimonos or western-style clothing.

In China, people believe that tigers protect children. Family members bring newborns special food and present them with gifts of clothing or toys decorated with tigers. When a Chinese girl or boy turns one year old, a variety of objects and toys are placed on the floor around the child. According to ancient beliefs, the object that the child chooses is a symbol foreshadowing the profession he or she will pursue in life.

In Hong Kong and some other Chinese communities, special noodles are served for lunch in honor of the birthday child. The noodles are extra-long to symbolize a long life.

Filipino families display blinking colored lights to show that someone is having a birthday at their home. The whole family usually goes to church together to thank God, and a celebration with close family and friends may follow.

In Korea, "Paegil" (the 100th day after a child's birth) is a day of feasting for the child's family. Similarly, on a Korean child?s first birthday, a party called a "Tol" or "Dol" is held. Family and friends gather to enjoy food together and offer the one-year-old gifts of money.


In Germany, a children's birthday celebration is called a Geburtstagsparty. Historians attribute Germans with the first birthday parties for kids.

People in Holland hang birthday calendars to remind them of the birth dates of all their family and friends. Adults often bring a birthday cake to work to share with co-workers on their special day.

Instead of cake, Russian children are presented with pies, inscribed with a special birthday message.

"Birthday bumps" are given to Irish children in honor of their birthday. While held upside down, the birthday celebrant is gently bumped on the floor one time for every year of age - plus one extra "bump" for good luck!

Sending birthday cards is a custom that began in England about 100 years ago. Today, millions of cards are sent around the world each year to wish family and friends a happy birthday.

Another old tradition still practiced by some English people is to make a birthday cake with symbolic objects baked inside. In medieval times, objects such as coins and thimbles were mixed into the batter. People believed that the person who got the coin would be wealthy, while the unlucky finder of the thimble would never marry. Today, small figures, fake coins and small candies are more common. Guests are warned ahead of time as well, so no one injures their teeth or swallows a tiny treasure.

Danish people fly the country's flag outside their home to signify that someone in the family is having a birthday. And while the birthday child is asleep, gifts are placed around the bed, so presents will be the first thing in view when the child awakes.

Norwegian children dance in front of their class with a friend while the rest of the students sing a happy birthday song. Norway's national flag is also displayed outside the home of a birthday person. When important people have birthdays, the streets in Norway are decorated with flags.

Like Danish and Norwegian people, Swedes like to use their national flag to decorate on birthdays and special occasions. Swedish children are often served breakfast in bed. Birthday cakes in Sweden are similar to pound cakes and are decorated with marzipan.

United States of America

Throughout history, Native American tribes have placed significance on milestones in a child's development rather than the day he or she was born. The day children take a first step is cause for just as much rejoicing as when they get married or become parents.

The majority of American children, however, celebrate birthdays with a cake topped with lighted candles. Most families use the candles to represent how old a person is turning, (i.e., one candle for a one-year-old, etc.). When the cake is set before the guest of honor, he or she is supposed to make a wish (without telling anyone what it is) and blow out the candles. If all the candles go out with one breath, it's believed that the wish will come true!

Some children receive birthday "spankings", which were originally based on superstition, but are now more a birthday prank or joke. Hundreds of years ago, spankings were given for each year of the birthday child's life. Beyond that number, a child received another spanking to grow on, one to live on, one to eat on, one to be happy on, and yet another spanking to get married on. At one time, it was considered back luck if the birthday celebrant was not spanked because it was believed to "soften up the body for the tomb." Historians are unsure if the practice of swatting the birthday girl or boy was treated as a joke, as people view it today.

Singing "Happy Birthday to You" has also been a long-standing tradition on birthdays as well. It was written by two American sisters in 1893, and has been translated into several languages around the world.

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