The birthday, a party to ward off death?

For a child, a birthday party allows him to socialize by choosing his guests.

© David J. Phillip/AP

Text by: Louise Huet

8 mins

The birthday party, with its share of gifts, candles and cakes, has simply become an unavoidable rite of passage for each of us.

But do you know where this celebration comes from, and above all, when does it really date? 


Read more

A happy un-birthday


To me


To whom


To me


Over to you


 », sing in unison the Mad Hatter and the March Hare in Walt Disney's animated film,

Alice in Wonderland

, released in 1951 and inspired by the eponymous novel by British author, Lewis Carroll.

The "non-birthday", this crazy event invented by the novelist in 1871, which celebrates every day of the year... except that of his real birthday! 

In his story, Lewis Carroll depicts a magical world, wonderful and far from our reality.

Because unlike the two characters in this scene, it is the birthday that we all celebrate every year.

A date expected for some, sometimes feared for others.

A moment of joy and conviviality that most of the time evokes memories of blown candles, shared cakes and unwrapped gifts.

But where does this tradition of celebrating our coming into the world come from?

Why have we made the birthday a celebration of the individual?

And above all, since when?

According to Jean-Claude Schmitt, historian specializing in the Middle Ages and author of the book

The Invention of the Birthday

, it was not until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that the birthday became an individual, family celebration. and regular, as it is today.

This is a very recent custom which has mainly been deployed in countries and cultures where particular importance is given to the individual.


The anniversary is intimately linked to an aspect of marketing and consumption, where economic interests place the individual at the centre.

On the contrary, cultures that are very theocratic or very marked by religion mainly celebrate religious holidays.

So, the anniversary is accompanied by a certain secularization of society

 ,” explains Christian Helson, professor of psychology and author of the article

Anniversaries and the psychology of the ages of life

In addition, not all communities celebrate this famous anniversary.

In Bhutan, for example, birthdays are not traditionally celebrated since many do not know their date of birth, and above all, consider this event as a sign of individualism.

Also, some cultures sometimes calculate their ages differently.

This is why, in several countries of Southeast Asia, such as Bhutan, Vietnam, or

South Korea

, citizens gain an extra year each January 1, and celebrate their birthdays collectively on this day. . 

Celebration of death, celebration of life

To understand the origin of the birthday as we know it today, we have to go back a few centuries, to the Middle Ages.

Historian Jean-Claude Schmitt has found traces of this celebration at the end of Antiquity, then during the Roman Empire.


For a long time, the anniversary was celebrated above all under the impulse of sovereigns.

Under the Roman Empire, the emperor's birthday was even a compulsory holiday

 ,” he points out. 

This birthday of the Roman emperor is then a pagan festival, without religion.

And it is precisely for this reason that for entire centuries, throughout the Middle Ages, the tradition of the birthday was set aside by Christianity and the Catholic Church in the West.

In the Middle Ages, what is called anniversary is the anniversary of death.

The memory of the deceased is celebrated each year, on the date of his death.

It was a very different philosophy of life from today, since according to the Church and Christian ideology, death represents the beginning of true life, eternal life,

” says the historian.

Especially since at the time, very few knew their exact date of birth. 

However, through the centuries, a progressive shift takes place: that of the passage from the celebration of death, to the celebration of life.


By celebrating the fact of being alive, we ward off death.

Moreover, we can clearly see that today, the older we get, the less we celebrate our birthdays with enthusiasm, since death is getting closer

 , ”recalls Christian Helson. 

The cult of birth at the origin of the birthday

So how can this shift towards the celebration of life be explained?

First, the Protestant reform, very present in Anglo-Saxon countries, which makes the birthday "

not a sin of pride as with Catholicism, but a moment glorifying the coming into the world of a person

“says Christian Helson.

Protestantism rejects Catholic liturgies, and instead promotes the feast of the individual.

From the 17th century, Samuel Pepys, an English parliamentarian, noted each year in his

famous diaries



) his own birthday, as well as that of the king.

In France, the birthday does not become a regular and standardized celebration until the beginning of the 20th century.

Then, if the fact of celebrating one's birthday seems so commonplace today, it is because religious practice has greatly weakened in the West.

The cult of saints and gods has collapsed to give way to free ground, that of the promotion of the individual, of narcissism

 ", informs us Jean-Claude Schmitt.

Add to this our change in our outlook on the child, who over the years has become an object of love and attention from parents, as infant mortality decreases, as described by Christian Helson.


Celebrating one's birthday is accompanied by a century-long movement that wishes to pay homage to the child and make him belong in the home.


For their “Quinceañera” (15th anniversary), the young girls organize evenings with their families that resemble wedding ceremonies.

© Thalia Juarez / AP

This cult of 

the “child-king

 ” can be found in many countries and many traditions.

The key example: the famous


 celebrated in Latin America on the 15th birthday of young girls to mark their passage from adolescence to the stage of womanhood, with ceremonies worthy of the greatest weddings and dresses of princesses all the more extravagant. each other.

Or simply, the concept of

baby shower

in the United States, a prenatal party, which celebrates around treats, activities and small gifts, the child even before he is born!

The birthday, a social marker 

The song " 

Happy Birthday

 ", declaimed by thousands of people every day, is itself extremely modern.

The melody dates from 1893, invented by two American teachers, Patty and Mildred Hill.

To get the lyrics available in 18 languages, you have to wait until 1912, and to this day, no one knows who had the idea of ​​adding the word " 


 " to the melody!

But then, why did we internalize this norm so quickly around the birthday?

According to Christian Helson, it is to ward off our advancing age and the passage of time.

Birthdays are a way of feeling accompanied in the passage of age, of strengthening self-esteem, of surrounding oneself with friends to fill a need for meeting and conviviality


And according to the teacher, as we give less importance to collective rites, we have replaced them with individual rituals, with candles, the birthday song, gifts and a cake.

Birthday cake sold in the United States in a supermarket, in April 2022. © Nam Y. Huh / AP

From a psychological point of view, the birthday is a real indicator of our state of mind and a date that allows us to take stock of the past year, and those to come.

This is for example why a change of decade often leads to many inner questions: where am I in my life?

Have I checked off all the steps I would have liked to complete so far?

Questions that sometimes cause a feeling of depression or anxiety on his birthday: this is what is called the “ 

birthday blues


Moreover, if the passage to the upper ten represents today a major milestone in life, the symbolic importance given to the number 10 has not always been so.


In the past, we counted the notable ages by multiple of 7. The age of reason at 7 years old, the majority at 21 years old… Then, we decimalized things after the French Revolution, and we started counting in decades

“says the professor of psychology.

While this ritual took two thousand years to establish itself, today one thing is certain: the birthday represents a very profitable industry in all four corners of the world, with parents sometimes ready to spend a small fortune to celebrate their offspring.

► To read also


  • Why do we party?

  • The not always consensual history of national holidays around the world


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