USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘birthday ritual’
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A Happy Birthday song

A Happy Birthday song

My friend Kirsten is a fellow freshman at the University of Southern California, studying International Relations, as well as someone with whom I went to high school and preschool in Pasadena, CA. In the intervening time between our shared educational experiences, she attended a small, alternative K-8 school, also in Pasadena, called Sequoyah. The third child in a family of four children, she has an older brother, an older sister, and a younger sister who each, also, attended Sequoyah. She shared with me the birthday song (distinct from the copyrighted, ‘traditional’ “Happy Birthday to You”) that was sung throughout the school year upon the occasion of any classmate’s birthday.

(See hyperlink at top for tune.) The lyrics go:

“It makes me think of the good old days,

Happy birthday to you!

You’ve sure grown out of your baby ways,

Happy birthday to you!

It’s your [age – i.e. “15th] birthday, wish you many more,

Health and wealth and friends by the score,

Let’s cut the cake and let’s eat some more,

Happy birthday to you!”

 

She describes that, “The way we did it at Sequoyah would be like every time someone had a birthday, they would bring dessert for the class, and then, after school, we’d all gather and eat whatever they had and then we’d sing the song. So whenever it was someone’s birthday we’d sing that,” and “you did it from first grade to eighth grade, it was the whole school,” the whole school career, and evidently sung multiple times per year. Though she doesn’t know when or from where the song originated, she knows that it was a school birthday tradition at least since before her brother started at the school, four or five years before she did so herself. But the interesting thing to note is that, for her at least, the song transcended school tradition and entered into her birthday ‘vernacular’ at home: “At home, we do both. We’ll sing the normal happy birthday song, and then me and my little sister will sing the song – ‘cus, like, we both do [it] every birthday even though my brother and my older sister have stopped singing it… So, like, me and [my younger sister] keep doing it.” Though she and another mutual friend with whom she attended Sequoyah never sang the song for any of our friends’ birthdays in high school, it was mentioned a few times, which I recalled and so asked her to sing it for me for this post. She went on to say that “part of actually why me and [my sister] keep singing it is that it [a birthday] doesn’t really feel complete if we don’t sing it, or like, I don’t know if I would necessarily teach it to my kids or something to that extent, but I guess, in my own family, or like if were to do it with [our mutual friend] or someone [i.e. another Sequoyah alum], then I would feel like I would have to sing it.” This statement seems to indicate that the song is meaningful for my friend, not just as a traditional piece of her childhood that she “Can’t remember a time, really, where [she] didn’t sing it,” but as symbol of unity and a marker of identity and belonging among students and alumni of her school.

Customs
Holidays
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Birthday ear pulling in Italy

My informant grew up in Italy, where there was a tradition that on someone’s birthday, his friends would pull on his ears once for each year he was old. He speculated that this could be because of a belief that the ears are associated with memory and so pulling them might make one better remember life as it passed them by. The other possible explanation he offered was that because earlobes grow as a person grows, this ritual of pulling them might be to wish a person a longer life.

It was never actually a tradition he particularly liked because he found it physically uncomfortable, but it reminds him of the time he spent in Italy growing up before coming to America. It also makes him remember the friends he had there as a kid and the birthday parties he used to have with them.

Personally, I would readily accept either of his suggestions for the meaning of this ritual. Otherwise, it could just be a thing children made up to annoy each other; it reminds me of the punch for each year birthday tradition in America. Maybe it’s used then as a painful/bothersome initiation into the next year of your life. Once you get past it, you come out better for having gone through the experience. I like his explanations better, though.

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