“Mnohaya lita”
Ukrainian wish for birthday and other celebrations, rooted in Byzantine liturgy. Literally, many years.

I have always loved the Ukrainian version of “Happy Birthday,” which I first encountered when I met my wife’s family. In its several melodic variations, we sing it with vigor at birthday as well as anniversary and other celebrations.

This week we are celebrating a significant birthday of my wife. I have occasion once again to reflect on the wish we so joyfully extend (in this case) to the birthday girl.

“May you have many years!” So much is implied in this hopeful, even if at times plaintive wish. I remember well singing this wish for, and with, dear loved ones no longer with us. What exactly are we wishing anyway? Is the wish not fulfilled if the person does not in fact live many more years?

This takes us to the root of what we do when we celebrate birthdays. Human life is exceptionally and uniquely good, in every individual instance. A birthday celebration allows us to express this conviction both as a universal, and as regards this particular. We are so happy that YOU exist among us!

To express this affirmation is itself life-giving. It helps each of us see a basic truth about ourselves and one another.

The wish is forward looking too. You are so wonderful, and we are so grateful for your existence that we wish for many more years of it! In the end this is a three-in-one: a wish, a prayer, and a hope. We will it! We pray it! And we have confidence! Your life calls out for long extension into the future!

In reality, extended years in this world may or may not be granted to you. But this much we affirm: your very existence is precious beyond words. And we know, in the end, that we are not the only ones who think so. God will grant you many years, in his own way, in his own time. And for this we are so grateful. For what more could we possibly wish? Happy Birthday. Mnohaya lita!

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