Stethoscopes and microphones? Bubble-gum flavored cake? Overseas celebrations? Prayer rituals? These may sound like outrageous birthday ideas to you, but to children around the world, a birthday wouldn’t be a birthday without one of these traditions.
The standard American child’s birthday party goes something like this: Host a party at your house/restaurant/events center; guests bring wrapped presents for your child; you provide copious amounts of food for guests who then sing an off-key version of “Happy Birthday”; the birthday boy blows out the candles on his cake and rips into gifts; guests get a goody bag; everyone goes home exhausted; parents shell out fistfuls of cash to pay for it all.
Not every birthday party is created equal. Who hasn’t caught a glimpse of MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen?” TLC featured a reality show called “Outrageous Kid Parties” and introduced audiences to a couple who spent $32,000 on their 6-year-old daughter’s birthday party. In February 2011, Good Morning America showcased a children’s birthday planner who arranged a party with a whopping $40,000 price tag!
That’s not to say birthdays in other parts of the world don’t attain the same lavishness; of course some do. But these celebrations often incorporate a culture, religion, or tradition that somehow make them feel more meaningful than a mega-birthday bash. Still, some children live in countries where birthdays are not revered at all. Here is a roundup of how families around the world celebrate birthdays:
A child’s first birthday is very important in Korean culture, explains Bora Gahng, who lives in South Korea and has extended family in Fargo. A family will throw a party at their house or restaurant, but gifts (other than money) are not required. Instead, the baby sits in the middle of a circle of objects and performs a ritual called a “doljabi.” “The baby will pick from a variety of things like a thread, pencil, a bill of money, or stethoscope,” says Gahng. “Nowadays, people seem to add a microphone or a golf club because parents want their babies to be a star or a golf player.”
Each object symbolizes a future path for the child. “Thread represents long life; a pencil equals intelligence; a stethoscope means the baby will grow up to be a doctor,” explains Gahng. A similar ritual is performed in Chinese culture.
Birthdays in this Central American country are all about family. Not just your immediate family, either. “When we’ve celebrated birthdays in Costa Rica, they’re always filled with family. This means aunts, uncles, cousins, fourth cousins,” chuckles Alison Artavia of Bismarck. Artavia, a native North Dakotan, married her Costa Rican husband three years ago and has traveled to his home country with their son.
The celebration can last all day and includes a piñata filled with morenitos—a hard candy to suck on—and plenty of food. “It’s kind of a big deal to have a leg of pork, called a pierna a la leña, that’s been specially marinated and slow cooked all day. Everyone gets a little piece of pork with some white rice and a tortilla,” says Artavia.
Don’t forget about the cake! Big, extravagantly decorated cakes are always ordered (most people don’t have ovens), and the flavors rival that of a bag of jelly beans. “They prefer bubble gum, tutti-frutti, and pineapple. My wedding cake was bubble-gum flavored,” says Artavia.
When a Jewish boy or girl comes of age, they undergo a rite of passage called a Bar Mitzvah (age 13 for boys) or a Bat Mitzvah (age 12 for girls). The religious meaning of the ritual is to indicate that the boy or girl is responsible for his/her actions. Kids are required to stand before the synagogue and read a portion of the Torah. This is often done in Hebrew that the boy or girl has most likely studied in Hebrew school.
You may already know all this, right? But you may not realize that a lot of American parents host their child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah in Israel!
“I’ve known a lot of families who have had their kids’ Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in Israel because really, it’s a religious event at its core,” says Danielle Braff Karpinos, a mom of two girls who grew up in a heavily Jewish community in New York City. “But it’s also a huge deal. It’s like a wedding and it gets really expensive for everyone involved.”
Karpinos remembers getting Tiffany necklaces and other expensive presents—“well over $100,” she says—from her guest list that totaled roughly 150 people.
There are two birthdays you don’t want to miss in India—your first and your sixtieth. Both days are filled with prayers and puja (a Hindi prayer ritual). Family and friends from all over come to celebrate with you and your family, explains Dr. Arveity Setty, a Sanford Health Pediatric Sleep Medicine Specialist who lives in West Fargo.
Originally from India, Dr. Setty says birthdays are a big deal for children until about the tenth grade. You get to wear a colorful outfit to school and hand out chocolate to all of your classmates. Even better, teachers take it easy on you and will give you a reprieve on your homework. Often, your parents throw you a western-style birthday party, too.
When you turn 60, you’re once again the center of attention for a huge celebration called Shastipoorthi, which roughly translates to “completed 60 years.” Men, in particular, are given special reverence for Shastipoorthi. The ceremonies are akin to renewing your marriage vows and are ideally performed in the same month as your birthday.
There are two things you need to know about birthdays among the Dutch: 1) You better be prepared to bake your own cake; 2) nobody will ever forget your child’s birthday because it will be printed on a “Birthday Calendar” proudly displayed in family and friends’ bathrooms. Yep, you read that right.
According to the blog, www.stuffdutchpeoplelike.com (which appears to be helmed and policed by a vigorous number of orange-loving Dutch), birthdays are serious business in the Netherlands. As soon as you can comfortably operate the oven on your own—we’re talking to you, teens—you’ll be expected to provide a tasty cake for your guests. Then the congratulations, or “gefeliciteerd,” begins.
Rain Huskes, an American living in the Netherlands with her husband and son, says she found the tradition odd at first. “You not only congratulate the person on their birthday, but you congratulate their parents, other family members, friends, kids, basically everyone in the room,” she says. “Then you take your spot and wait to be waited on by the birthday host.”
But you get the same treatment as your guests whenever one of their birthdays rolls around, and you’ll never miss one because of your birthday calendar!
Traditionally, in this African nation and in many other African cultures, birthdays are not celebrated because most people don’t know what their real birth date is. “People who are born in villages still don’t put an emphasis on their birth date so they’re more likely to forget it,” says Laetitia Mizero, a native Burundian and mom of two who now calls Fargo home.
Instead, Mizero says many Africans tie their births to the natural, cultural, or political landscape that existed in their countries around the time they were born. “You hear stories like, ‘It was the year Burundi got its independence,’ or, ‘It was when Burundi had that terrible flood,’” she explains.
Refugees who come from nations that don’t typically celebrate birthdays often take the assigned date of January 1 (and whatever year they believe they were born) once they transition to life in America. Otherwise, parents may refer to the date of their own or their child’s baptism as the birth date.
Africans born in urban areas, however, may take a different approach to birthdays. “For those like me, born in cities and from educated parents, we do have western-style celebrations with cakes, guests, and presents because that is where the influence came from,” says Mizero.
Buttered noses and fortune cakes await Canadian kids on their birthdays.
The website, www.birthdaycelebrations.net, writes that a buttered nose is supposed to help children slip away from bad luck. Lore has it that this tradition began in Scotland and carried into Eastern Canada.
Even better than a buttered nose is a fortune cake, sometimes called a money cake. It’s exactly what it claims to be. Coins (lots of smaller change and only one quarter) are individually wrapped in a twist of wax paper and baked into a cake. The birthday party guest who finds the quarter is destined for the greatest wealth that year!
All of these festive birthday traditions are unique. However, there is one common denominator: Every person deserves to be celebrated at least once a year for being a part of this great, big, beautiful world around us.
Formerly from Fargo-Moorhead, freelance writer Patricia Carlson writes about baby boomers, parenting, and healthy lifestyles for magazines across the country. Check out her work at www.patriciacarlsonfreelance.com.
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