Last week I celebrated another 40-something birthday and I have to say that my family and friends made it very special. It was not a “biggie” ending in a “0,” but I no longer fret about such things — a clear diagnosis from a health scare earlier this year has led to an improved attitude on my part to the whole aging process.
It is great to be alive and healthy. Be happy. Age gracefully. Enjoy life.
Many traditions for celebrating birthdays are similar in the U.K. and U.S. The sending of birthday cards is a custom that began in England over a century ago and that has been enthusiastically embraced by many cultures. Similarly, the birthday cake with lit candles representing the age of the birthday girl or boy and a tradition of secret wishes made as these candles are blown out is common across the world.
In the U.S., of course, lucky girls get a “sweet 16” birthday, which is not a British tradition. The 100th birthday is far more exciting for British citizens as a special letter of recognition is sent by the Royal family.
While the British and their American cousins generally have pretty similar birthday traditions, there are some rather bizarre ones around the world. Here are a few, according to the intelligent but offbeat magazine Mental Floss:
• In China, a birthday boy or girl should slurp down a plate of extra-long noodles to symbolize their continuing longevity.
• Closer to home in Canada, someone having a birthday can expect to get “ambushed” by friends and family who grease up the birthday nose with butter.
• In Jamaica, the birthday victim is doused in flour in a friendly but boisterous process called “antiquing.”
• In Vietnam, the actual day of individual birthdays is largely ignored, but everyone celebrates their birthday on the same day called “Tet,” which falls on New Year’s Day.
The birthday song that we all know and love on both sides of the Atlantic is the classic “Happy Birthday to You,” which has an interesting history. According to www.about.com, the melody and lyrics were written in 1893 by Mildred and Patty Hill, two schoolteachers and sisters. The melody was composed by Mildred and the lyrics were written by Patty, but it was originally a classroom greeting song titled “Good Morning to All,” which was included in the 1933 book by the sisters, “Song Stories for the Kindergarten.”
At some point, no one really knows by whom, the lyrics were changed from “Good morning” to “happy birthday.” This modified version was first published in 1924 and, following a number of legal battles starting in the 1930s and being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, is today the highest royalty-generating song of all time. According to the BBC, “Happy Birthday to You” has generated more than $50 million in royalties and will continue at an estimated rate of $2 million per year until 2030.
I certainly enjoyed having the most recognized song in the English language sung to me several times last week, most notably by my 3-year-old granddaughter, and by world famous opera stars Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves — but not at the same time.
One of the most dazzling performances of “Happy Birthday” was by Marilyn Monroe to celebrate President Kennedy’s 45th birthday in May 1962.
The event was not attended by the President’s wife, Jackie Kennedy. It was given an extra titillating boost in the media of the day because of rumors of an affair between Monroe and Kennedy, and because her dress was supposedly so tight that it had to be sewn directly on to her naked body — yet it was Monroe’s breathless rendition of the song that caused all the attention and that people remember today.
When Monroe finished singing, Kennedy reportedly came on stage and, in reference to the highly suggestive performance, said: “I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”
I will leave you with another quote, which a dear friend sent me on a birthday card and attributed to the legendary American baseball player Satchel Paige: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
God bless America!
Francis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.