What exactly do we celebrate when we commemorate someone’s birthday? This is a question I can’t say I’ve ever really considered before. The fact of the matter is birthdays were never explained to me and I guess this is the case for the vast majority of people. It’s just something you grow up with and don’t really question. As a child, there simply is no incentive to be extremely inquisitive when it comes to a day that entails you drowning in cake and presents. And by the time you’re older and presents are not as important to you anymore, you’ll have become so accustomed to the institution that the origin of our birthday celebrations is unlikely to ever cross your mind.
A quick Internet search revealed that apparently no one really knows what the deal with birthday celebrations is. We know that it’s something to do with the Ancient Greeks, but there certainly is no unanimously agreed upon explanation as to why, today, we celebrate birthdays in the manner that we do. So like a good philosopher, I thought I’d grasp this opportunity to just make up my own theory, making sure to haphazardly introduce nonsensical terms that no one outside of academic philosophy could possibly understand, meaning no one will be able undermine my incoherent assertions.
It is obvious that on birthdays we demonstrate our appreciation of someone’s existence. But why on that particular day? It’s hardly one’s own achievement to have been born on a specific date, is it? If anything the parents should be credited. Perhaps the purpose of birthdays is in fact to commemorate the anniversary of the completion of a pregnancy? Hmm… Surely if this was the case we might as well go back a further nine months so as to include conception (thus congratulating both parents for their efforts in the sack). After all, that’s when the complex biological process of baby production kicks off. “I’d like to thank my Mum and Dad for having unprotected sex twenty-six years and nine months ago. I literally would not be here without you. So yeah, thanks.” To be honest, I doubt that conception and birthday celebrations are in any way related, if only because every time I brought it up on friends’ birthdays, I suddenly turned into ‘the weird one’ at the party.
If birthday celebrations are nothing to do with successful procreation, then what else could they be about? Perhaps what we do is acknowledge a person’s ability to survive and self-sustain, implicitly praising them for things like checking for cars before crossing the road and avoiding starting fights with heavily intoxicated machete-wielding grizzly bears. “Many happy returns! In virtue of you handling your personal responsibilities sufficiently well you have not died yet.” If that’s not a cause for celebration, what is?
This will be a tremendously disappointing conclusion to an enquiry so superficial as to be entirely pointless, but I don’t think there is a clear-cut explanation of why we celebrate birthdays the way we do. I also think that this does not really matter. I like our custom of celebrating birthdays and I know very few people who object to it. It’s nice to make one’s friends and family feel extra special once a year. And it’s also a great experience to be made feel extra special once a year. That being said, some people get a bit too excited when it comes to their birthdays. Fully aware of the unique privilege that this event bestows on them, they take advantage of it to the fullest extent. I’d like to give you an example of such a person by telling you a not-so-lovely, little anecdote.
Have you ever seen that episode of SpongeBob Squarepants where the eponymous character throws a party for his friends and ruins it by obsessing about guests disrespecting his ultra tight schedule for activities, ultimately resulting in him getting booted from his own party? (you’re not going to get high fiction references from me; cartoons will have to do). Well, the party I went to was similar to SpongeBob’s party in many respects.
In this case, the host was an Italian girl whose twenty-sixth birthday we were to celebrate at a (mediocre) Swabian restaurant. Although I had met the birthday girl before and even chatted with her for about ten minutes at another party, I wasn’t technically invited to her party. However, my girlfriend, who knew her only a bit better than I did, was part of the guest list and convinced me to tag along. As far as I’m aware I was the only one who was not invited. Luckily, the birthday girl didn’t seem to mind my unexpected presence in the slightest. She seemed very relaxed and jovial when we arrived. However, it did not take long until her attitude changed for the worse. The likeable birthday princess in her elegant, blue dress to whom I’d wished a happy birthday upon entering the restaurant revealed herself to be a nutty control freak. Every single aspect of the evening was perfectly orchestrated and absolutely no one was to question the military-like tactics employed by the host in order to make sure everyone abided by her minute schedule. The event was more contrived than any American late night talk show celebrity interview I have ever seen, and that’s something.
Pretty much the whole night through, she uninterruptedly orbited around the tables like a desperately confused satellite that’s overdosed on Haribo Happy Colas, collecting all the useless data she could acquire. By this I mean she never paused from taking pictures with her DSLR camera for more than three and a half seconds. The only reason for these short intervals was that, between taking pictures, she kept pressuring people to smile the way she wanted them to smile and passive-aggressively informed them if their posture was not impeccable. She also ordered every single guest as well as myself to sing their respective national happy birthday-equivalent song or at least say the words “Happy Birthday, name of the girl whose anonymity I’m going to protect although the horrible memories I’m currently reliving for the purpose of writing this article really make me second-guess that decision!” in their mother tongue into the camera (I should add that we were a bunch of exchange students from all over the world spending a semester or two in Tübingen).
As the birthday girl stood before me, anxiously awaiting me to let her record me wish her a happy birthday through a lens and a microphone, I was immersed in a conversation with my girlfriend and consequently was completely oblivious to her standing there. Understandably, the birthday girl attempted to catch my attention but since she did not remember my name, her intention resulted in her pointing her index finger at me and shouting “You!” repeatedly until I eventually turned my face towards hers. She said she wanted me to say or sing happy birthday in “French or German or whatever my mother tongue was”, at which point I interjected that it’s Luxembourgish. She then started recording and I had about half a second to convince myself not to say something terribly rude for my own perverse satisfaction and to generate enough enthusiasm to wish her a happy birthday in a remotely sincere manner (the thing about birthday boys or girls is that, no matter how soul-crushingly unnerving they are, you can’t really tell them to fuck off. People tend to look down on that sort of thing).
Later on in the evening, we were all handed playing cards. The rule of the game was as follows: whoever had the one joker that was in the deck would win a secret prize. We’d all have to reveal our card at the same time and were not allowed to look at it beforehand. But naturally, upon receiving my card, I immediately had a peek (as did everyone else), when I noticed a worryingly familiar figure depicted on my card. I then leaned over to my girlfriend and whispered into her ear “I think I’ve fucking won” in a tone of voice that made it very plain that my soul, already on the brink of death, was about to be delivered its final blow in the form of public embarrassment. Because my amazing girlfriend loves me so much—and perhaps also because throughout the evening I’d already told her “I want to die” about eight times with successively fading irony—she just erupted in laughter, anticipating my upcoming ordeal of my socially awkward and usually extremely low-key self having to unwrap a gift with everyone’s eyes glued to my petrified face. Of course, I, the uninvited guest, had to win. Of fucking course.
My incredible luck was then indeed rewarded with a whole room of relative strangers watching me clumsily unwrap a gift I didn’t want at a gathering I didn’t want to be at, organised and event-managed by an authoritarian birthday girl who, in the course of the evening I’d come to despise. Thanks to this great thing called peripheral vision, I noticed that one bloke even filmed my reception of the gift and the subsequent unwrapping. I’m pretty sure the video is on the Internet somewhere, just in case you want to see it. Your best bet is probably r/cringe.
Before I took on the wrapping paper I felt the need to tell a noble lie, thanking the birthday girl for a lovely evening and calling for an appreciative round of applause, all this in an effort to seem vaguely human and let people know that despite my visible discomfort, I meant well. Once I’d worked my way through the wrapping paper and got a first glimpse of the actual gift, I genuinely could not tell what it was. The object looked to me like a soft shell camera case. Despite having no idea what exactly this gift was, there was absolutely no question that it was utter shite. I then had to perform some impromptu acting, trying to pretend that the unquestionably ugliest and most useless gift I have ever received in my life was in fact a really great gift that I would cherish until the end of my days, because, you know, etiquette and that. Annoyingly but in a weird way also reassuringly, my entire performance was accompanied by the sounds of my girlfriend laughing her tits off. At least someone was having a bit of fun that night.
After my in no way phoney words of appreciation, the birthday girl snatched the camera case-looking object out of my hand, opened it using the zip, and produced a load of miniature hearts she had crafted herself. These were then ceremonially distributed to every guest and me before the birthday girl ventured into a shouty ten-minute lecture on what exactly these hearts symbolise, what memories we will associate with these hearts, and what they will mean to us in a few years. Isn’t it great when someone else decides about the meaning of events in your life on your behalf?
Because I’m about to have a minor panic attack from looking back at everything that transpired that night, I’ll skip to the end of the story. It usually caused annoyance among my friends and I that our buses from the city centre to our district never ran late into the night, but this time it could not have been more convenient. Opportunistically using limited public transport possibilities as an excuse to leave the party prematurely, we managed to get out even before the cake was served, which, judging by the host’s overly assertive ways, may well have been a three layer chocolate cake in the shape of a swastika (with super cute pink icing!).
The first thing I did after I got back to my flat was to put both my gifts where they belonged, in the bin. I then went to bed with my girlfriend, who by the way, still cracked up occasionally, reminiscing about the profoundly uncomfortable situation I had found myself in.
So basically what we had in this anecdote was a special snowflake gone a bit nazi. Just noticed: if you turn ‘special snowflake into an acronym you get SS. Coincidence? Yes. As much as I despise her for everything that transpired that night, it’s just a fucking coincidence.
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