The birthday tradition

By on September 11, 2013

The Guiness Book of World Records names Happy Birthday as the most recognized song in the English language.  For many decades now, the song has been traditionally sung at most birthday parties (often out of tune).    It is no wonder that Warner/Chapell  paid 28 million dollars to have the copyright to the song.  Tradition is definitely here to stay for many more decades to come.   But each culture across the globe has its own unique tradition of celebrating birthdays.    Knowing exactly what they are could be useful in interacting with international families in Japan.

American tradition
Most families do a cake-song-candle routine on birthdays.  A birthday cake will have candles representing the birthday kid’s age with an extra one for good luck.  When the candles are lit, the people around sing a happy birthday song and the child makes a wish without telling anyone what it is.  If at the end of the song, the child is able to blow out the candles with one breath, it is believed that the wish will come true.

Australian tradition
In the land down under, birthday cakes don’t reign supreme.  What does is a sweet bread less fussy to eat called the  “fairy bread”.  It is a slice of white bread  coated with butter on a side and randomly covered in multicolors of sprinkles.  The Aussies have a cute term for sprinkles —  the “hundreds and thousands”.

Brazilian tradition
When you are invited to a Brazilian kid’s birthday party, expect to have a long day.  90% of the time, it starts early and ends late.   They usually entertain guests with a list of activities, games and loads of sweets and trays of Brigadeiros,  Brazil’s version of chocolate truffles.

Chinese tradition
If you happen to be invited to a Chinese kid’s birthday, take note that it is a taboo to give a clock as birthday gift for it signifies “death” in Mandarin.  The Chinese believe that a tiger is an auspicious symbol to protect the child.   So you will not go wrong to give a Chinese newborn,  a blanket or any object with a tiger symbol as present. The most important time in Chinese tradition is the day a baby is born.  That’s when the Chinese start counting one and is considered as the child’s  first birthday.  Newborns receive gifts on time so a belated or an advanced gift may likely be frowned upon.

Danish tradition
The Danish birthday is quite similar to Christmas eve only without  the special appearance of Santa!  In a Danish tradition,  presents are placed around the child’s bed the night before the birthday while the kid is asleep.  The idea is for the child to be surprised when he wakes up.

Dutch tradition
Birthdays are very important for the Dutch.  They generally keep a calendar of birthdays, often found in bathrooms.   Customarily, a birthday boy or girl brings pastries or treats to share with their classmates in school.  At home, parents decorate the child’s dining chair often with paper streamers and flowers to make him feel special and is served with pancakes and tarts paired with lemonade or hot cocoa.   If you happen to be invited to a Dutch party, know that opening presents is done in front of all the guests.

Indian tradition
A child’s first birthday is very important to the Hindus.  It is a tradition to pass out chocolates to classmates.  In some rural regions in India, a child gets his/her first haircut after turning three.   Families visit the shrine to give thanks and receive blessings.   Birthday meals in traditional Indian culture is marked by spicy veggie curry, some spicy fruit relish and “dudh pakh”, a rice pudding often prepared with rich pistachios, raisins, almonds and cardamom spice.  Modern families abroad skip the tradition to make the guests comfortable.   Fun and age-appropriate presents as opposed to practical items are always appreciated.

Japanese tradition
Here in Japan, the 3rd, 5th and 7th (shichi-go-san in Japanese for 7-5-3) are by far the most significant ages of a child.   Japan has a festival for that called Shichi-Go-San held every 15th day in November when families take their children to a shrine to give thanks to God and wish for their continued good health and long life.  Why  three, five and seven?   It was a noble tradition during the Heian period for children to shave the head before turning 3.  From age 3  the children are allowed to grow their hair.  From age five boys start wearing their first hakama (traditional clothing for Japanese men) and from age seven, girls  begin to use a proper obi (kimono sash) instead of a simple cord.  Urban families often eat shortcake on birthdays.

Korean tradition
The “Dol”, or the first birthday of a child is considered by Koreans to be the most important age.  A traditional birthday ritual starts with a prayer to God with a bowl of steamed rice, water and miyeok guk (sea-mustard soup), and red bean rice cakes on the praying table.  Koreans from Seoul pray in the early morning of the child’s birthday while others prayed on the eve.   Korean birthday babies are dressed in colorful clothings so that relatives can take pictures of the celebrant.  The Dol is pretty much a family affair.

Philippine tradition
A country with a mixed cultural background,  birthday tradition in the Philippines varies according to the region.  Being a catholic country,  a common ritual for families is to take the child to church  to hear mass and thank God for a year well lived and ask for many more years.   In an urban setting,  birthdays are always celebrated with balloons, cakes, and ice cream.  When you are invited to one, bringing a birthday present is an unspoken rule.

Saudi Arabia
There is a continuing mixed attitude by Saudi Arabians when it comes to celebrating or not a child’s birthday.   Senior muslim clerics  think having a party is a foreign influence and does not go with their tradition while others say it’s acceptable.   In Saudi Arabia, it is generally accepted to celebrate festivities such as weddings, religious holidays and events that are shared by the community.  Saudi Arabians consider birthdays as focused on an individual and therefore against muslim values.

A traditional birthday present in Vietnam is a red envelope that contains “li xi” (lucky money) given by parents, close friends and relatives.  When giving a gift,  it is best to avoid black which is considered to be a symbol of death.

About Julie Wilson