October 12th, 2011
Birthday Gifts by Peter Res
Birthdays have been associated with gifts for as long as any of us can remember. I wondered what my Grandfather thought, sitting at his 98th birthday table, stuffing cake into his mouth amidst a mob of relatives he’d be lucky to recognize, let alone thank. Still, somewhere in his mind, between reminiscent stations in Texas, writing memos for the War because he knew how to use a type-writer, and playing cards with kind strangers in Florida, well into his eighties, there was a space for birthdays. Even at an impossible age, the concept remains with us.
Thinking about my grandfather leads me also to wonder just how many birthday parties the man must’ve attended: thousands, it must be. How many gifts were bought all around? How many of the gifts are kept in boxes, in dusty attics that have kept so much? How many birthday gifts have been destroyed, epically dropped from childhood hands, disastrously dried out in sun, flooded in rain? How many have come to defy their intention, material composition, cultural connotation and name, yet retaining a new surprise somehow? These questions linger each time a birthday is mentioned. Our gifts vary. Songs and praises come without saying, and so too do our sentiments, at least we hope. But in moving from the poetical to the historical, we are compelled to reflect upon the origin of our unique observation.
Birthdates are common among every living person in history. As we well know, the physical and cultural event known as live birth pre-dates our history, and actually originated among reptiles however many millions of years ago. But the term birth date implies something different, a method for dating. For us, that means a calendar. Mankind’s oldest example of this is the Lunar Calendar, in which days are numbered along with the cycles of the moon.
The Islamic, Hellenic, and Hebrew Calendars are all lunar calendars. It is likely that the first people to observe birthdates lived by a Lunar Cycle. In pagan cultures prior to the time of Christ, birthdays were a joyous occasion, but in a different sense than we’re used to. The presence of change in a person’s daily life meant also the presence of evil spirits. Evil spirits, being evil, apparently had a lot of clout in Ancient pagan circles, as you might have guessed. Their presence was feared immensely. Interestingly enough, however, the birthday observance was meant as a protective measure, in which the person celebrated was surrounded by family, joy, and laugher, and praised with wishes of positivity as gifts.
Recorded birthday celebrations, did not come until much later. By the time Pope Gregory XIII decreed the Gregorian calendar in 1582 variations on the lunar calendar had been adopted, such as the Roman calendar, and passed on. Christ came, too, and the Gregorian calendar counts the days from his incarnation. A solar calendar, days are grouped into 365 years, as we know them. It was around this time too, that birthdays became recorded events. Unlike today, in those days for something to be written down, and archived with a place in the cultural consciousness, it had to be important. Nobility has always thought themselves extremely important, and so the kings, queens, of the court, perhaps the jesters too, had their birthdays recorded.
In our age, we record birthdays instantly, in fact social networking systems record them for us, automatically. But how did the blanketing of birthdays in recorded history augment the culture of birthday gift giving? Aside from the adornment of ceremonial crowns, it’s difficult to know what gifts were given among royalty. By the time of the reformation, however, birthday celebrations became more common, and also included children.