Birthdays are the most powerful events of the year. Are we using them correctly? Can we get more from a simple day?
A disclaimer: I am writing this article in mid-December of 2019 after celebrating my 45th birthday. My birthday is December 8th, Annas b-day is December 8th. My eldest celebrates Jan 1st, and he is 13 years old two weeks from now.
How did we start to celebrate birthdays?
It is not trivial that we survived yet another year. We celebrate birthdays quite often yet few of us ask: why? Let’s consider the history if birthdays. The first birthdays celebrated not a physical birth, but a spiritual birth of pharaohs and other religious figures. The birthday celebrations were offerings to the protective spirits of the powerful people. The early church considered the celebration deeply pagan until the birth of Jesus was celebrated.
Ancient Egyptians introduced a ceremony, greeks added candles, Romans started to bake cakes. Female birthdays were celebrated starting from the 12th century. Germans introduced birthdays for children around 18th century. The industrial revolution made birthday celebrations truly global, as birthdays helped sell sugar. OK, how is all of this relevant to us?
I would say that since each culture developed its own notion of birthday, so we could do the same.
Rites of passage
Not all birthdays are equal. Certain birthdays still retain a spiritual value. In Jewish families 13th birthday is considered very important as a rite of passage: the laws and rules apply to a boy only after a ceremony performed on 13th birthday. Rites of passage predate birthdays and calendars and are common to most human cultures.
A very different sort of birthdays are celebrated every 7 or 50 years and are called jubilee. In Jewish culture, each 7th year is used for the ground to rest and for the people to contemplate before starting a new cycle in their lives. The catholic church celebrates jubilee every 25 years for the remission of sins, e.g starting a new cycle. In Buddhist cultures, 50th celebration is called a godlen jubilee and is used to celebrate long periods of prosperity under a great ruler.
Starting new roles and getting remission from old mistakes have an important role in most cultures, and we may choose to use our own birthdays accordingly.
Have a bucket list
There are certain elements that separate modern birthdays from ancient ceremonies. The most interesting aspect is the “bucket list”. The term bucket list is a relatively new one, popularized by a movie of the same name starring American actors Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman released in the early 21st century. Bucket list comes from the phrase ‘to kick the bucket’ which is a figure of speech meaning ‘to die’.
Birthdays are a great time to set up new goals and consider the old goals. Many achievements and experiences get lost in the noise of our everyday lives. In our bucket lists, we state the big ones: the things we absolutely want to do before we die, and we also celebrate the achievement of those things.
Personally I build a new bucket list every 10 years to make sure that my big dreams do not get lost. I do not do everything in these lists, but I definitely try to follow them when I have an opportunity. I take the first 5 years of every decade to complete my bucket list and another 5 years to create a new one.
Live like this is your last day on earth
Another common aspect of birthdays is understanding the fragility of human experience. As children, we are happy to see each birthday, as we get access to new rights and capabilities. Above a certain maturity level, we start feeling that some doors are starting to close. We become less agile and robust as we age. Children present hopes and potential, elderly people are keepers of the experience and wisdom.
My grandmother hated her birthday and asked not to be photographed, as she was no longer a beautiful young lady. This attitude was active for 50% of her life. I would say that vanity is not a good quality for birthday celebrations. I personally have a bad habit of mourning all the lost opportunities of the year that passed. Not very instrumental.
Probably the best idea is living each birthday like your last day on earth: noticing the small things that make us happy and doing good deeds to the people we can make others happier. Each year I promise myself to do this, and my success rate is around 50%.
Spend time with your loved ones
There is social pressure to have a great celebration, with surprise parties, cakes, and alcohol. Personally I think that birthdays are not a good reason to consume substances or spend more money than we can afford.
There is however a special modern aspect to birthdays: people from far away can contact us and get in touch. Social media makes everybody aware of everyone’s birthdays. We do not have enough time for each other, but on birthdays we tend to find that time, which is wonderful.
Birthdays are definitely a great event to spend with close family and close friends, to appreciate their company. People tend to tell us why they love us, and this charge of positive energy should stay with us for the entire year to come. It is also interesting to understand why they love us. For example, my kids think that I am wise and cuddly, and my wife loves the sense of freedom and security I provide.
Birthdays allow us to contemplate about the things we are grateful for and the things we want to learn next. If we are doing something bad, a birthday can be a wakeup call. When I was 20 years old, I understood that the wisdom lies not in math and physics, but in “softer” sciences. About 10 years ago, my birthday let me understand that I do not spend enough time with my family and this is a critical error.
I am truly grateful for my family that loves me, for friends that support me and for the unique opportunity I have to help others. The real human needs are quite simple, and a better investment portfolio or a new publication does not necessarily make us happier.
Use the deals
Many restaurants and entertainment sites offer us a birthday gift. It is a great business opportunity for both sides. Personally I use this opportunity regularly to spend money and time on things that are beyond my everyday needs.
Stepping out of the comfort zone is a great birthday experience. We can use the warmth and happiness we acquire on this special day and try to handle something intimidating.
The birthday candles are a great reminder for the enlightenment we are after. My birthday often coincides with Chanukah and its quest to banish the darkness. Therefore learning has a special meaning for my birthday. Since my children were born on New Yeas’s day, 4th of July and Simchat Torah, each of them carries a different sort of light into the world. Fill your world with the light of learning, self-fulfillment and helping others. In each of my courses, I promise to help you triple some of your qualities. Triple these three qualities without my help, and make the world brighter.