No Cure for the Common Birthday
Praise the Lord and pass the biscuits! I finally figured out I can suppress that annoying Facebook birthday notification feature.
Every day on my computer I was receiving little messages with gift package images reminding me it was so-and-so’s birthday. Facebook even populated my calendar with these same birthday reminders. Great, I’d think, now I’m expected to send a happy birthday greeting or else walk around all day feeling guilty. You know damn well the birthday boy or girl is aware his or her friends all received the notice so he or she knows exactly who can’t take the 30 seconds it takes to pen a little note or hit the “like” button. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell don’t need any more guilt and pressure in my life.
As you might surmise, I’m not a birthday enthusiast. It has nothing to do with growing older, which I don’t mind at all. And I don’t suffer from fragapanophobia, which is the irrational fear of birthdays. No, my apathy stems from my upbringing, where kids did not rule the roost.
In my family, Thanksgiving and the Florida-Georgia football game were big deals; children’s birthdays, not so much. Adult birthdays were never mentioned. I’m certain my brothers and I had lovely little birthday parties when we were young. I just can’t remember them.
I do remember my 18th birthday and boldly walking into Ducks, a rundown gas station and convenience store on old Route 11 on the outskirts of town to buy beer as a legal adult in the State of Virginia. No more worrying about whether or not I’d be carded or if the fake ID was good enough or if someone’s parents walked in and saw me. Unlike Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, I didn’t just study in high school….
For decades, I declined to celebrate my birthday until I agreed to a very small party for my 50th but only because it coincided with a trip to New Orleans. There was a cake, lots of 25-cent martinis, and a nice lunch at Commander’s Palace restaurant. It was over in three hours and life returned to normal.
Now I don’t begrudge anyone celebrating a birthday. It’s a free country. But I can’t keep my eyes from rolling whenever I hear about someone going on and on about their special day. Are they aware that on a planet of 9 billion people it’s likely that 19 million others share the same special day?
And don’t get me started on the concept of birthday weeks or months. I once had an employee get pissy with me because a complicated assignment had to be completed during his “birthday week.” Puh-leeze…. I told him I realized the celebration of Christmas now started before Thanksgiving, but in the spirit of one Ann Richards, he was no baby Jesus and there’s a reason it’s called a birthday. His only response: who was Ann Richards?
While I don’t give a hoot about birthday celebrations, I am interested in the history behind them. Cultural historians say the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all celebrated birthdays with bread cakes and gifts to ward off evil spirits. Naturally, early Christians associated birthdays with paganism—until the Immaculate Conception.
Germans in the fourteenth century began the practice of putting one candle on a sweet cake to celebrate each year of a person’s life and giving birthday gifts. But this was only popular among the very wealthy until the Industrial Revolution led to the mass production of affordable sweet cakes and candles.
Then there’s the “Happy Birthday” song. As I understand it, two American educators in Louisville, Kentucky—Mildred and Patty Hill—wrote a song titled “Good Morning to All” in 1893. It was geared for young school children and it quickly spread across the country.
Someone unknown later added the happy birthday verse we know and sing today. The Clayton F. Summy Company published the song in a book of songs for children in 1924. The company claimed the Hill sisters gave them the rights to the original song in exchange for a cut of the profits. However, the company didn’t copyright the song until 1934 after it showed up in a couple of popular movies.
You can see the problem. Who added the happy birthday lyrics and who really owned the copyright to them? Summy Company sold its copyright to a company that was eventually bought by the company that became Warner Music and Time Warner, which collected some royalties on it when it was used in commercials, TV shows, and movies.
The battle simmered along until a court ruled in 2016 that the copyright origin was unclear and the “Happy Birthday” song is a free public work. Damn! Now there’s no way to stop birthday singing in restaurants.
In fact, there seems to be no cure at all for all this birthday hoopla. It’s worse than the common cold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to wrap up this column, fix a Bloody Mary, and figure out how to manipulate my Facebook account to hide yours truly’s upcoming birthday. ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.