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.