The Hubbub Behind "Happy Birthday"

By Ron Ciancutti
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / barneyboogles

Hey, what is up with this birthday thing?

Birthdays make less sense to me with each passing year. When you’re a kid, you LIVE for birthdays. You get gifts, you do the old bring-cupcakes-into-school-for-the-big-“sing-to”-thing, and Grandma slips a real $20 bill into a card that has clowns and zoo animals on the front long after you turn 10. Your friends put you through the “spanking machine” on the playground—good times, good memories, good birthdays.


But somewhere around age 13, you start to feel sort of unsettled about telling people about your birthday. When you’re a kid, it’s cool because your family knows it’s YOUR day, but later you start to feel like it shouldn’t be a big deal. But then you still want something made of it from the new people in your group. But later you actually begin to avoid the attention again. Clearly we are conflicted on this topic.

Baffling Rituals
But having people KNOW it’s your birthday must still be important because as adults we have other strange rituals for birthdays.

For example, as a new employee you walk into work on the day of your birthday, but no one knows that. At some point you just happen to mention it at lunch, and here are the guaranteed responses:

  1. “It’s your birthday? Why didn’t you say something?” (What in the world were you supposed to say and when for God’s sake?)

  2. “Today? Well, Happy Birthday!” (Now that I know it is officially your birthday, I will generously give you these two words: “Happy Birthday.”)

Or how about the response of an acquaintance: “Why didn’t you say something?” When were you supposed to announce this revelation--in the Monday morning staff announcements? “And one final thing, people: Monday is my birthday. Thought you’d all want to know. Have a nice day.”

Then there’s the inevitable reply: “I wish I had known. I would’ve bought you something.” How do you respond to that one? “Well, you can shop later today and just present me with a gift tomorrow morning. I don’t mind that it’s late.”

A Day To Remember
Why do we sometimes feel guilty when we fail to remember the day another person was born—especially a relative stranger? If we miss the birthday of a spouse or child or parent, that’s a little rude, but a co-worker? Why would we be responsible for that information?

But even with relatives—what we’re really celebrating is that another year has passed and that loved one didn’t die. Hurray? I just don’t see the puffed-up significance of this event.

Some men use a birthday as the occasion to propose marriage. Some families use it in order to pressure the man to propose marriage. “You’re not going to let another birthday pass without a ring for her, are you? You’re going to lose that girl!”

Then there’s the illusion that nothing should go wrong on your birthday. “I can’t believe it’s raining on my birthday. Figures!”

Weather seems to be a real factor for birthdays. “Look what a beautiful day I have for my birthday. The sun is shining, and the skies are so blue….” (God must have awoken that morning and said, “Peter, isn’t today Eddie’s 37 th birthday? Let the sun shine all day.”

Familiar Scenarios
Then there’s the traditional singing of the birthday song--at work. Who came up with this brilliant idea? Someone has hidden the cake, the victim has been called away, and upon his or her return, the “Surprise” ensues. This event is followed by a 2-hour discussion of how the “surprisers” devised their secret plot. “Yeah, I thought it was rather weird when Barbara from accounting asked to see me. I haven’t spoken to her in 11 years.”

“Well, we got you!”

“You got me.”

(What are we getting again?)

Then there are the people who decorate front yards for the milestone birthdays. These usually are advertised on the “tens,” but we divide the number:

The big four – OH!

The big five – OH!

What’s up with that? Now that we’re aging, we have to break up the number like on Sesame Street so we can keep up?

Anyway, the yards are decorated with crows, gravestones, and other macabre items. These are timely reminders that your life is slipping by and one day you’ll be dead. Great friends. Happy Birthday.

God forbid that you FORGET someone’s birthday. You remember at the most inopportune moment, and the person whom you forgot gets that hurt look, followed by the martyr’s anthem: “That’s all right. I don’t mind. I know you’re busy.” Actually, the thought is, “You careless idiot. See if I ever remember your birthday!”

Blended Occasions
My birthday (December 27) happens to arrive on the heels of the Christmas holidays, and over the years I have always suffered for it. Faded photographs from my childhood birthdays show me in the foreground blowing out candles while my weary parents and relatives in the background are recovering from giving their kids great Christmas mornings. How could I have had the nerve to be born then?

Occasionally, an aunt or uncle would give me a Christmas gift then suddenly remember my birthday was in two days. “We spent a little more on Ronnie this year because it’s also for his birthday.” Translation: “We are not buying another gift before the end of the year—we’re broke from Christmas as it is!” I would always smile and say,“Oh, well, thanks for remembering me.”

In the end, I guess remembering a birthday is simply an opportunity to tell the person you care. The British writer Oliver Goldsmith penned a line I have always found revealing in its simplicity and honesty: “All that a husband or wife really wants is to be pitied a little, praised a little, and appreciated a little.”

Maybe that’s what “Happy Birthday” is all about.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at