What’s this birthday business about anyway?
Commemorating the day of your birth makes sense, but throughout the centuries, birthdays have gotten pretty big for their boots. The cake, the candles, the singing, the presents, the Facebook notifications… birthdays are a big deal.
Most importantly, CAKE.
As far as we know, Romans were the first to decide that cake should be the official treat of birthdays. They’d make a cake from flour, nuts, yeast and honey. I’d be ticked off if someone made that cake for me, but if you were a Roman and someone made that cake for you on your birthday, you’d have been pretty happy. Because only the fanciest Romans got birthday cake.
Speaking of Romans...
Those folks were actually the first culture to celebrate birthdays for regular people - but only men (women’s birthdays weren’t celebrated until the 12th century). The government decreed public holidays for birthdays of Rome’s most famous citizens. That should probably still happen – I would work really hard to become important enough for my birthday to be a public holiday.
Back to cake because CAKE.
You can’t have a birthday cake without candles. But no one is sure why exactly we put candles on our birthday cake and they’re definitely not sure why we blow them out. Wikipedia has an article on birthday cakes (of course) but the candle section just has a mysterious line that says: “Though the exact origin and significance of the candles and the blowing ritual is unknown, there are multiple theories trying to explain this tradition.” Very mysterious! But now is not the time for speculation.
Back to fact.
A bit before the Roman times when people were baking the very first birthday cakes and refusing to acknowledge that females had birthdays, we have the earliest known mention of a birthday. In Genesis 40:20 in the Bible, it says, “Now the third day was Pharaoh's birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials.”
I dunno what that head-lifting business is about and I can’t imagine how a ‘chief cupbearer’ would fill his days, but Egyptologist Dr. James Hoffmeier has some thoughts on the birthday itself. He believes this “birthday”’ is actually referencing the subject's coronation date, since that would have been the Pharaoh's "birth" as a god.
We should probably talk about the song as well.
According to Guinness World Records, it’s the most recognized song in the English language. The song’s tune comes from a little ditty written by two sisters who were schoolteachers in Kentucky, USA in 1893 - it was called “Good Morning To All” which goes like this:
Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all
There’s speculation that the sisters took the tune from a song written earlier, in 1875, called “Happy Greetings to All.” You can probably get how that one goes!
Until recently, the song rights were owned by AOL Time Warner and they were getting about $2 mill per year in royalties. One time, Walt Disney had to pay $5,000 to use it in a parade - $5,000 was the going rate.
But in 2010, people started asking questions about the song’s ownership. One guy in particular, Robert Brauneis published a paper called, 'Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song', which questioned the original copyright of the schoolteachers who wrote it and therefore questioned the validity of Warner’s purchase of it from them.
Then, in 2013, a filmmaker named Jennifer Nelson who had been charged $1,500 to use the song in a documentary about the tune took Warner to court. Two years later, the judge makes his ruling and declares that “Happy Birthday to You” is part of the public domain at last!
Want to know more?
Learn heaps more about birthdays – things you never knew you needed to know – by listening to Happy Birthday Podcast. Hosted by Things by Bean’s Jo Power and the incomparable Jeremy Gay, Happy Birthday Podcast is a gift for the ears.
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