Vail Daily columnist Allen Smith: Big whoop
Vail, CO, Colorado
I just celebrated another birthday. Now, before you start applauding, you need to understand that at my age, birthdays aren’t something I relish with any level of enthusiasm.
To me, birthdays merely mark the passage of time. The only thing I did to achieve another year on Earth is swerve to avoid oncoming traffic, continue to breathe in and out and successfully swing my feet out of bed each morning, which is becoming more difficult than it sounds.
Things were simpler before the rise of Christianity. People didn’t know how to calculate the lunar calendar, so they couldn’t keep track of birthdays. Everyone just assumed they were getting older when they couldn’t see their toes anymore.
Then Facebook took over the Internet, making it easier to remember when your friends were born.
Nevertheless, by the end of my special day this year, I hadn’t heard from a single relative or high school chum. I did, however, get a tweet from my periodontist, an automated call from a roofing company and a festive postcard from my proctologist reminding me it was time for my five-year colonoscopy. Sort of makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
In the beginning, birthday celebrations were reserved for kings, pharaohs and other high-ranking officials who could afford superfluous celebrations during a weak economy.
People weren’t expected to bring gifts when invited to birthday parties. Their mere presence was counted on, as they surrounded the guest of honor to ward away evil spirits.
To ensure that the spirits stayed away, two teacher-sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill, penned the tune “Good Morning to All” in 1893, which was abruptly renamed to “Happy Birthday to You” and sung to all their students.
Rumor has it that the mere sound of the elderly teachers’ voices kept all of their students safe – at least until they graduated or got married the first time.
What many people don’t know is that the song was copywritten and purchased by Warner Chappell in 1935. To this day, it’s technically illegal to sing “Happy Birthday” in public without paying royalties to his estate, which is why you seldom hear it sung in restaurants and other businesses anymore. That and the fact that American college students can’t remember the song’s words.
Some attribute the first birthday cake to the Greeks. They would bake treats to offer up to the moon goddess Artemis.
Early Germans commemorated children’s birthdays during “Kinderfest” by letting the child of honor lie around the house the entire day, skipping their chores and homework. The custom has become so popular that it’s spread like wildfire around the world and is now considered a permanent part of American culture.
The British still have a quaint custom of putting thimbles and coins in the batter of the cake before being baked. They believe that the guest who bites down into the piece of cake containing the coin will inherit great wealth. The guest who bites down into the piece of cake with the thimble will never marry. And the guest who bites down into the piece of cake and shatters their crown will get a new root canal.
A number of countries enjoy festive customs that put Americans to shame. In Ghana, children are treated on their birthday to an “oto” – a yummy surprise made from mashed sweet potatoes and eggs. Mmmm, mmm.
Kenyan children look forward the entire year to celebrating their birthdays in dirty, rat-infested barns alongside the family’s cattle. The Nepalese have their foreheads smeared with a colorful blend of rice and yogurt, and Irish children languish in the custom of “bumping,” when the adults hoist the guest of honor upside down by their ankles and bump their heads on the floor – an equal number of drops for each year on Earth. My parents adopted the custom when I was 5 and still practice it every year at my birthday party – although they need help hoisting me from my six brothers, four sisters and eight cousins.
Taking the lead from their Irish neighbors, Canadian birthday honorees receive an equal number of punches as their years on Earth. While I suppose it’s easy enough for youngsters to suck up a dozen or so punches, there’s something pathetic about the practice of pummeling your grandmother 83 times on her arm to celebrate her birthday.
The most perplexing custom comes from the Latin American countries, where parents save their entire lives, working three jobs, hocking everything they have of value and taking out a second mortgage on their home to pay for “Quinceanera,” or their daughter’s 15th birthday. Then, 10 years later, they’re expected to cough up another 50 grand for her wedding.
So, Veels geluk met jou verjaarsdag, taredartzet shnorhavor, ois guade winsch i dia zum gbuadsdog or happy birthday to you!
If you were born on this day, get ready to be smacked, pulled and dowsed with strange liquids while you’re eating things even barnyard animals wouldn’t touch. It’s your day!
Allen Smith, of Vail, is the author of “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” and “Ski Instructors Confidential.”