They say it’s your birthday…

image courtesy of Wikipedia

Recently, I took a whirlwind trip to New York City to celebrate my daughter’s birthday, and we had a wonderful time. It was a nice departure from the usual birthday party and it got me thinking about birthday traditions. I did a little research on this annual event and found some pretty interesting origins and cultural variations in tradition.

Did you know that birthday parties may have started in Europe as a way to protect the celebrant from evil spirits? People believed that you were more vulnerable to being attacked by evil spirits on your birthday, so all your family and friends would make it their purpose to surround you all day in order to keep you safe. There are so many beautiful birthday traditions all over the world, and in case someone you love has a birthday coming up, I’ll give you a few of my favorites. Why not try something new?

Brazil: In Brazil you pull on the Birthday Boy/Girl’s earlobe for every year they have been alive, and sometimes once more for good luck. Ouch!

Canada: You grease the celebrant’s nose with butter or margarine, this way they are too slippery for the bad spirits to catch. This tradition has it’s origin in Scotland.

Denmark: A flag is flown outside the house to designate that someone in the household has a birthday that day. For children, parents place the child’s presents around their bed so that is the first thing they see when they get up in the morning.

England: A Fortune Cake is made, which is a regular cake with small symbolic tokens baked into it. If someone get’s a coin in their slice of cake, then they are destined to be rich.

Korea: On a child’s first birthday, she/he is placed in front of a table of foods and objects, such as a string, brushes, ink and money. Whatever the child chooses from the table determines his/her fortune. Food represents that they will never know hunger, the string represents longevity, money represents riches and the brush and ink represent intelligence.

South Africa: On a person’s 21st birthday, their parents give them a key. This key symbolizes the young person’s readiness to unlock the door to their future.

Sweden: Traditionally, Swedish children are served breakfast in bed. Parents surprise the children by singing a traditional Swedish birthday song and bringing a birthday breakfast and gifts to the birthday child. The breakfast typically includes a hot roll with a candle in it and a beverage.

Vietnam: In Vietnam, everyone’s birthday is celebrated on New Year’s Day!

So, what do you think? Have you been inspired to switch up any of your usual birthday traditions & if so, where will you start?

Alla Helgons Dag

Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons

Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons

Each family has its own unique culture, and for us, my Grandparents were instrumental in shaping that culture. I always looked forward to visiting them and hearing stories about their life in Sweden before they came to the Midwest. My imagination would stretch itself to Sweden; to forests with dim light pouring through them. Sure, they would tell the same stories over and over again, but each time they would add a little flourish that made it new again. Years later I found myself telling my kids these family tales. I’d see their faces, and  find myself exaggerating and adding my own twists. Eventually, I came to realize that my voice had become just as much a part of the telling as the voices of my Grandparents.

One of my favorite stories my Grandmother told me was that on Christmas she would bring wreaths and candles to the cemetery and put them on the graves of her Great Grandparents. She said that on that night the cemetery was washed in light, the flames from the candles cutting circles and shadows in the snow. This image has stayed with me throughout my life, and eventually I made it to her village. It was around this time of year, near Halloween (years after my Grandparents  moved to America, Alla Helgons Dag  or “All Soul’s Day” was moved to the Saturday following the 30th of October). When I got to the cemetery, I realized that although the day had changed the traditions continued. Being there was like stepping into my Grandmother’s memory, as I was surrounded by light.

In Sweden, the end of October marks the beginning of  the dark nights of winter. On Alla Helgons Dag we bring lanterns, candles and wreaths to loved ones who have passed on. We bring them these things, though more than anything they are gifts to ourselves. We are reminded that the love of those we have lost continues, despite the long days without them.