I think we should be more intentional about celebrating birthdays. It’s something we all will benefit from. Especially today.
It’s not that celebrating birthdays is by its nature important for human life. There were societies or cultures where this was not a practice. I do not assert that birthday celebrations are an irreplaceable way of affirming and rejoicing in life. Other cultures expressed such affirmation and joy in other ways.
My assertion is that celebrating birthdays well has greater significance in our current circumstances. Why? In brief, on the one hand we lack contexts and customs that focus on the gift of life, and on the other strong forces undermine our sense of self and the goodness of life.
We might consider that in so many ways we are treated impersonally, as though we are just a number—even for instance if we shop at the same place regularly. (It was already hard when the check-out person became a constantly rotating job; the automated tellers now put a fine point on it.) We are so used to being anonymous, we have become numbed to it. Perhaps it has even become comforting.
This is the world inhabited by our young people. Their devices draw them in and then undermine the very connection they promised. Imagine the betrayal! The voices that should have been friendly tell them they must be a certain way to be accepted. They are constantly challenged to measure up. In all the wrong ways. In ways which either they cannot measure up, or if they do, they forsake their true selves. The dilemma and the isolation are terrifying.
And this is not just the problem of the young. We all face the anonymity, the depersonalization, and the isolation, along with the demands to forsake the better ways of living.
Celebrating birthdays well is far from a panacea or fix-all. But it can be a real humanizing stroke. It gives occasion to say things that need to be said. And need to be heard. It gives occasion to help someone feel the gift of being of human, and more, of being this particular person!
Is this mushy or cheap psychology? Or is it an opportunity to do what is so needed, and the absence of which is so deeply, even while often unconsciously felt.
There are many ways to do it. It certainly does not require following the script of the oft overly commercialized ‘party.’ Particular trappings may or may not be used. What trappings are used can be invested with life-giving affirmation. We do this—whatever it is—because you are you. Maybe we are family, and we were witnesses to the joy of your birth. Perhaps we have come to know you later. But one way or the other, from a position more proximate or remote, we are here to say:
On this day from the bottom of our hearts we thank God that you exist. And though we still must go about our way, today is not just any day. The world would not and could not be the same without you. You are precious, and you are one of us. We love you, and we wish you every truly good thing. Today, and forever. Happy Birthday!
I have posted two short videos: Why to Prioritize Birthdays; and Some Suggestions for Celebrating Birthdays
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Spot on as always John! I’ve always loved celebrating birthdays and enjoy finding out when everyone’s is occurring. I appreciated your analysis of our habit, as adults, of trying to hide the date. Very insightful.
I would offer that if possible, all birthdays should be celebrated with the gift of offering a Mass for the individual. Children get an important message from this gift, as do adults. Although your focus was on children, I find it also very meaningful to offer spiritual gifts such as a rosary or holy hour for adult family and friends, particularly in this age of hyper materialism.
Karen, I love your suggestion. And I couldn’t agree more that part of our being intentional about birthdays is thinking about how to mark adult birthdays in more meaningful ways. Perhaps I should begin by thinking about my own birthday differently… Thanks!
Completely agree! Growing up we also celebrated our saint namesake’s feast day.
Beautifully written. In fact, we hardly ever think of birthdays in this light. My birthday is, in fact, this month — it falls two days after my 50th wedding anniversary. I think back to that time and most all who were there celebrating with us are no longer with us. Yes it is vital for us to keep sacred a place in our lives to remember the importance of birthdays.
Congratulations on your 50th wedding anniversary; how beautiful! And, may you have a very happy and blessed birthday that ties you closer to your loved ones: even to those who are no longer bodily present with you.
John, I watched both videos and found them enlightening as to my own love of birthdays and insistence that we celebrate them and why I always feel so hurt that my own children do not make an effort at all. It makes me feel that my existence does not matter and that they, the closest family, do not feel that joy that I am in their life. I was 50 in March and nothing happened. My husband’s family never show any enthusiasm for these things and so he has grown up with that feeling that it is weird, as you so aptly put it. Friends and other family sent me cards and gifts but my deepest heart desire was to have a birthday where I felt that sense of acceptance and acknowledgement of being a gift to others. This topic really is important to me and has strengthened my desire to do this for others. Thank you.
Cate, First of all, happy 50th! I’m so sorry to hear of your heartache. Here is something that strikes me in this case. As you know, I strongly hold that celebrating birthdays is a great way to affirm existence and express our love as we rejoice together. But at the same time, we need to remember that if for some people this simply has not been part of their life experience, then they really don’t ‘get it.’ In other words, their lack of expressing interest in a birthday does not in fact mean what it would mean if you or I simply ignored a birthday. I know you know you this. I suppose we can encourage one another to see and receive their love and affirmation in other ways, in the spirit of there being different ‘love languages.’ Maybe this leaves us in the position also of ‘offering up’ the lack we feel here, as a kind of oblation for so many others who really are deprived of any love and affirmation. … in any case, I rejoice with you in fifty years of the wondrous gift of your life.
John, as always, I appreciate the fact that your reply is gracious and discerning and takes all sides into account. I like what you say about those who do not have this experience of birthdays in their own lives, simply not getting it, and not meaning to hurt. I also think your final comment about offering up my hurt feelings about my own children as just what I needed to hear. These feelings have made me more compassionate towards those who may not get affirmation on their birthday. My dear Sr. Clare would have wholeheartedly agreed with you. Thank you for your kindness and congratulations!
I used to hate the attention drawn to and celebration of my birthday until I had my first child. Now I think I understand better how special a birthday is for a person. Interesting to think that when you walk through a cemetery, it’s one of the last things given to remember about a person.
Emily, I completely agree: seeing it through the eyes of my own children gave me a whole new perspective. And I love your point about the cemetery.