The origin of birthdays

In Food, Vancouver and Region by Lenore NewmanLeave a Comment

My birthday was two days ago, and I managed to celebrate a little even though I had to give a final exam. Most of the celebrations involved food, and I started thinking about how odd birthdays are. Why do we celebrate them, and where did these rituals come from?

It turns out that birthday celebrations arose in Greek and Roman times, and that the lighting of candles in particular honours the pagan God of the day of our birth. So the date didn’t matter quite as much as the day itself. And of course our days of the week are still named after pagan Gods; Sunday is named for the Sun, Monday is named for the moon, Tuesday is named for the war God Tiu, Wednesday is named for Odin, Thursday for Thor, Friday for Freya, and Saturday for Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture. I was born on Saturday, which seems oddly appropriate. No wonder I spend so much time trying to preserve agricultural land.

Early Christians had a bit of a problem with lighting candles to strange Gods, and so birthdays were banned until at least the fourth century, when the celebration of Christ’s birthday began to be observed regularly, and the tradition spread once again through most Christian lands. That explains the candles, but the cake came much later; it really wasn’t popularized until it was taken up by those wonderful Victorians, who jumped on any excuse to eat cake. So here is to Saturn, God of agriculture, who probably would have supported the Agricultural Land Reserve. And thanks to my lovely partner Katherine for the cake!

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