“It’s my birthday tomorrow!” confided one of my young students, his eyes shining, and a joyful grin lighting his face. “I’m going to have a party! It’s going to be so much fun.” His childish candor left no doubt that his upcoming event was of utmost importance to him.
Most children whose birtdays are celebrated love their birthdays. They like their presents, they eagerly anticipate privileges that “being older” can bring, and they love the attention focused on them. Somewhere in the journey to adulthood, something changes; birthdays become less important, something to enjoy if someone happens to remember, but also something to downplay. Birthdays become “working birthdays”, frequently unnoticed in the workplace. They become dates to remember that one is now a year older, and often less valued as years increase. For adults, birthdays become associated with loss.
What are birthdays, after all? Contrary to popular opinion and mainstream socialization, they are not primarily about numbers. People are not numbers, and numbers cannot define or limit them without each person’s permission. No two people assigned the same purportedly identifying number are the same. The concept is deceptively inaccurate, despite the propensity of news media to print a person’s so-called number immediately behind his or her name. It is irrational despite attempts by various authorities to force people into number boxes and relate to them according to the popular concepts of what people in those boxes (e.g., 18-30, 31-45, 46-60, over 60) are “supposed” to be.
If not numbers, then what? If the numbers that excite children so much are removed from the idea of birthdays, what remains to inspire joy? Children instinctively understand that they are in the process of growing into adulthood. Each year means additional (even a small amount of) adult privilege. (Demonstrated responsibility might be a better measure.) For children, counting the numbers is important; it is also how they are socialized into believing that their numbers constitute what they themselves are.
However, there is more to birthdays than numbers, and that “more” is the essence of birthdays. They are a time of recognition and celebration. A person’s birthday is a time to be seen, recognized and welcomed by those among whom he or she lives. It is a time to show the birthday person that as many someones as possible are happy that person has come to be among them. It is a time for encouragement, love and celebration.
Perhaps “name day” would be a better term. Names are our way of distinguishing linguistically with which of the wonderful expressions of the Creator we are interacting. Using the term “name day” would shift the focus from the numbers to the people. For, without this essence of birthdays, the celebration of individuals, the numbers by themselves cannot bring joy.
Each of us deserves to be celebrated. A case can be made that we all deserve to be celebrated daily; certainly, once a year is not too much. Look around. What can we do to celebrate others? How can we celebrate ourselves? Whom will we celebrate today? Happy birthday, everyone!