History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 March 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

Yes, it’s my birthday (“for reals”, as my little sister would say), and I’m so thrilled that my Hoydens and hoyden friends are here to share it with me. If there were a way to offer cupcakes through the internet, I would be sharing pink icing with you right now. Since there doesn’t seem to be (or, if there is, it’s a jealously guarded secret in a bunker in New Mexico somewhere), I’ll just have to share words instead and leave you to acquire the cupcakes on your own.

Out of curiosity, I did a little poking around on the historical origins of birthday celebrations. What I discovered was… that no one really knows. Oh, there are all sorts of theories, but it’s like my old Magic 8 ball used to say: “Hazy”. One argument is that birthday celebrations date back to ancient Greece and the candles on the birthday cake are somehow tangled up with worship of the goddess Artemis (who, frankly, from those old myths doesn’t seem the sort who would bring enough cupcakes to share with the class. Just sayin’).

The Romans ate honey cakes for birthdays, presumably for a sweet year, celebrating imperial birthdays as well as personal ones, although there are some who argue that birthday cake as such doesn’t really come into being until medieval Germany, where sweetened bread dough was made into the shape of the baby Jesus, eventually turning from religious celebration into children’s party. In England, rather as with Christmas puddings, coins and thimbles would be hidden in birthday cakes, forming a sort of domestic divination: if you got the coin, it mean money in your future (and possibly a broken tooth, but, hey, that’s the risk one takes).

In some cultures, the real celebration is the name day or the saint’s day rather than the birthday. (Although, as I understand it, cake and presents are still involved, which is really the crucial thing, isn’t it?) While I was doing my research for Ashford Park, my 1920s book, which is set partially in Kenya, I came across other groups who count age from the circumcision date, the universal rite of passage, rather than the individual birth date.

So, basically, it’s all a muddle. Birthday traditions tend to grow and proliferate in bizarre and specific ways. I went to a tiny all girls’ school where it was de rigeur for (a) the birthday girl to cut the first slice of cake, and then (b) to scream when she hit the bottom (I do this automatically, which tends to alarm those who didn’t grow up with that particular tradition), following which she must (c) chew the entire first slice without showing her teeth or else spend the rest of the party under the table.

Wait, you mean you don’t do this?

My little sister, who went to this school, also adamantly holds to these traditions. My brother, who went to a different school, thinks we’re nuts.

Do you have your own personal birthday traditions? What are they?

p.s. I'm having a birthday celebration over on my website today, so stop by for book give-aways and other fun!


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Happy Birthday Lauren! I have no real birthday traditions, although in grade school, my mother always arranged to have cupcakes for my entire class. For my sweet 16, instead of having a party, my parents took me to see Dancin on Broadway and then to the Rainbow Room for dinner. They also cracked open the champagne at midnight, so I was seriously toasted on my birthday. For my 40th, I spent it in London (also my 20th and my 23rd). My friend bought me a lovely cake from Patisserie Valerie, which turned out to be stale, but we didn't realize it because of all the champagne we'd consumed. I did notice there were some green bits, but he said he thought they were pistachios.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Elizabeth, that bit about pistachios cracks me up. Rather like the year that my grandmother baked a birthday cake and brought it over in a box-- that had mothballs in it. Once we smelled that strange smell, we quickly realized that those odd little white bits clinging to the chocolate icing weren't decorative frosting.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Happy birthday! I can't say I have any real tradtions surrounding birthdays, other than a nice meal and splurging on a good bottle of wine.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Happy birthday, Lauren! I love birthdays and firmly believe in celebrating them for at least a week :-). Like Isobel I consider a nice dinner and good wine a birthday tradition. Also wearing a new dress. When I was growing up my parents would hide my presents like an Easter egg hunt, which was fun. It occurs to me I now get to create birthday traditions with my daughter...

2:06 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Happy belated birthday, Lauren! I have always thought that birthdays are big deals -- mine especially. :) For a while I liked to travel somewhere wonderful for my birthday, either somewhere I had never been and always wanted to go, or one of my alltime favorite places. On one birthday, before THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY came out, I was on a cruise of the Mediterranean from Athens to Istanbul, aboard a tall ship, and at around dawn on on my actual birthday we sailed past Troy. My boyfriend at the time and I woke up super early and went on deck with a bottle of champagne. I've gone to Cabo San Lucas (with the same guy and nearly broke up), and in happier days, fulfilled a dream with my fiance-later-husband, to go hot air ballooning over Bath, England. For a particularly major birthday a few years ago, I told Scott I wanted to sip champagne atop the Eiffel Tower, and since I was working on the first Marie Antoinette novel at the time ... it was all in the name of research!

7:56 AM  

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