It amuses me, the fuss that people make over birthdays. As a child I loved them because they included lots of cake and foods I wasn’t normally allowed (like McDonalds or Coke). And there was always a surprise, either in the form of a present or a secret party that your parents managed to organise without you finding out. Everything was still a little bit magical. I don’t know whether that is because I was a child (and allowed to wear fairy wings on my special day) or whether the brouhaha around birthdays has grown exponentially since. Nowadays everyone from the neighbour you never see to the supermarket cashier asks how your day was, already assuming that you answer will be positive. They don’t ask on other days and nothing momentous ever does happen on birthdays (unless you get engaged or skydive…). You even start forgetting what age you are (I always end up saying I’m older than I actually am). I wonder where the magic went.
Birthdays have become a weird mixture of anxiety, hyper-sensitivity and awkward social politeness. Landmark birthdays are made so much fuss of in our culture – they seem to denote the fine line between your wild years where you were still able to live in shared houses, have orgy-like parties and experiment with your career and the time when you should be becoming a responsible adult, perhaps having children, and settling down with a partner or pet. How boring and how terrifying at the same time! No wonder we’re all scared of growing up and enter into each new decade with such trepidation!
Take my boyfriend. He was dreading turning 30. It was a big deal. We went away so he didn’t have to have a 30th birthday party with actual people attending and seeing him age right in front of their eyes (and going away was a special thing to do). Was that because he was worried about turning into a tweed-and-slipper-wearing pipe smoker at the stroke of midnight or was it because everyone kept saying Ohhh, the big 3-0! How you feeling? Like he could drop dead at any minute.
I’m not worried about getting older (I really don’t want to relive my teenage years…imagine being in school again *shudder*!) but most people in our society dread it. Just look at the anti-aging industry. I wonder whether people feel the same anxieties about birthdays in societies like Japan where we’re always told that age is revered because of all the wisdom you must have acquired. I wonder whether they buy as much anti-ageing creams in those countries. Those stats would make for interesting reading.
As a teenager in a particularly stroppy and Smiths-obsessive phase I cannily thought I could escape the birthday awkwardness (Heaven knows I’m miserable now has a lot to answer for). I basically told everyone who approached to wish me a happy birthday in school to f*** off. That showed them. It made things a little awkward for the day, but I had a few years of peace until the bravest of my friends started it up again (which I was glad about because being shunned on my birthday didn’t agree with me either, even though it served me right). I didn’t like everyone making such a fuss about that fact I was born when they normally didn’t speak to me from one week to the next. I saw everything in black and white in those days, and this exhibition of duplicity enraged me. I didn’t care for the attention and clearly wasn’t equipped to deal with it.
Now I’m a bit mellower and less socially awkward. I still love the Smiths but no longer take song lyrics to heart like that. I accept that it’s a polite society thing to gracefully accept a fuss about your birthday, especially in the workplace. You bring in cake and have the small talk. There’ll be a card or a present if you’re lucky. You’ll thank everyone, talk about your ‘special day’, and bat off jokes about being over the hill or about having a long way to go until you join us crones. All those rituals that are part and parcel of the day, something you just deal with rather than enjoy, a laconic add-on to whatever you’ve planned to make it an enjoyable day.
I don’t want to be a birthday scrooge. When done well, I love a birthday but I don’t like the way society has made a big thing of it. Birthdays are now billed as the one day of the year where everything has to be extra special and all about you. I must confess that I went into my latest birthday with that mindset and got a bit upset when all that was on offer for breakfast was porridge made by my own two hands. I’m ashamed to admit how much like a spoilt brat that sounds. I almost had a tantrum like a two year old! So I took a deep breath and decided not to let the ‘everything must be extra-ordinary’ train of thought rain on my day.
Instead I had a lovely quiet day off. I lounged on the sofa in my pjs with my boyfriend, looking at country houses we couldn’t afford on Rightmove, decided not to go to the cinema, did some chores and a little DIY, read a book and ate a delicious meal he cooked for me. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Granted, I did do some celebrating. I went out for a meal with my boyfriend on Friday night and we met friends on Saturday night for drinks. But the usual Sunday routine filled with simple pleasures was plenty special for me.
I’d like to continue this in the future. I don’t want my birthdays to turn into someone else’s vision of the perfect party and I refuse to be scared of a number. I like to celebrate with yummy food that doesn’t need to cost the earth, some choice company, and maybe a quiet moment to read a book. I’m a year older, think of all the extra books I’ve been able to read! With age comes wisdom, and lots of books. That thought alone makes a birthday special.
How do you like to celebrate your birthday? Do you have a ritual and do you like attention or would rather do without it? Do you think we’ve developed unreasonable expectations of the day?