Tag Archives: birthday traditions

British Boarding School 18th Birthday Hazing Tradition


DD: “At Malvern and at most boarding schools, you have all your meals in your house, which means you sit with your year group, but there’s people from [ages] 13 to 18 in that room. Whenever you turn 18, after lunch and the housemaster does all the announcements and leaves and goes to the private side, what the birthday boy would try and do is run out of the lunchroom, but what everyone else does—and it’s mainly the lower and upper sixth, like junior and senior years—they like, hold down the person and carry them out of the lunchroom and into the showers, which are in the basement. And we’re all wearing suits. And then they turn on the showers and you get thrown in the showers and you get completely soaking wet. And, also, as you’re doing this, if you resist at all, they beat the s— out of you.”


The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in the Netherlands and attended a British boarding school, Malvern college, from ages 16 to 18. He experienced this tradition on his 18th birthday and similarly hazed other students on their birthdays. DD describes this ritual as “the highest form of endearment” that someone in this environment can experience. Since homophobia and oppressive gender ideals play such a big role in shaping social dynamics at all-boys boarding schools, he says that boys often use violence to express affection for one another. He says that this ritual acts as a sort of substitute for more common birthday traditions like singing happy birthday to someone or baking them a cake, which students may deride as “gay.”

            Moreover, despite the brutality and humiliation of this tradition, he argues that boys enjoy it because it’s an opportunity for them to be the center of attention and to be celebrated on their birthday.


This tradition exemplifies how transitional events are often ritualized and the tendency for people to behave in ways which would ordinarily be deemed unacceptable during liminal moments. In International Folkloristics, Arnold van Gennep describes rites of passage as “ceremonial patterns which accompany a passage from one situation to another or from one cosmic or social world to another” (Dundes 102). I am arguing that boarding school students hazing their peers on their 18th birthday is a rite of passage which marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, where the event acts as a sort of acknowledgement or confirmation of a student’s status as an adult. 

People feel inclined to engage in abnormal behaviors during instances of liminality because the paradoxical qualities of these moments make people think that the conventions which govern normal time are inapplicable. In general, birthdays are liminal because they cusp the end of one year and the beginning of another. With this ritual, another dimension of liminality applies to one’s 18th birthday, as this day cusps the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. Further, one’s status as an adult is complicated by the student still being in secondary school, which is generally synonymous with childhood. One could argue that a possible intention of this rite of passage is to humble the person whose birthday it is by showing that despite having the nominal privileges of adulthood, they are still a part of the school. The inversion of social roles often occurs during liminal moments. Younger students hazing their older peers can be interpreted as flipping power dynamics.

Another feature of liminality in this ritual is it simultaneously being embraced as a cultural tradition and being seen as a form of rule breaking. Students wait for the housemaster to leave before carrying out the tradition, but this is merely a performance of secrecy which is part of the ritual. The practice is a kind of open secret, where school authorities know that it occurs and participate by turning a blind eye and not getting involved. Though such hazing would ordinarily be penalized, it is tolerated on 18th birthdays because the community understands the tradition as a longstanding rite of passage celebrating students’ transitions to adulthood.

Van Gennep, Arnold. “The Rites of Passage.” International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore, edited by Alan Dundes, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 1999. 

Birthday Dirge Variation

This is a version of the Birthday Dirge adapted by the family of a close friend. They have been singing it for over two decades, and it is meant to be sung in a somber tone at a largo tempo. The lyrics are as follows:

Grief and sorrow fill the air

People dying everywhere

Happy birthday

Happy birthday

This variation of the birthday dirge is sung much slower than other, more popular renditions of the piece. The family also sings it after the traditional happy birthday song, with the parents leading the pace. This song order really emphasizes the juxtaposition between the dirge, which talks of gloom and despair, and the upbeat celebratory song, and this difference becomes very comical. Though other renditions of the birthday dirge include these lines individually, they are not sung together. As it stands, this is a modification of the song’s most popular versions.

They also sing this song for people outside their family, if they are fortunate enough to spend their birthday week within the family’s home. It is often shocking for people hearing the song for the first time, but it soon becomes a part of the birthday celebration that others start looking forward to. I personally was very bewildered when I first witnessed the birthday dirge performance, as I had never heard of people intentionally speaking of death and sorrow during a birthday. However, I grew to enjoy it and I even participate in singing the dirge when I get the chance.

For alternate versions of the birthday dirge, see:

Brendan, and Brendan. “The Birthday Dirge.” ThereItIs.org, 12 May 2015, https://thereitis.org/the-birthday-dirge/.



Informant: So in Korea there’s this soup called Miyeok Guk. It is…  Essentially like a seaweed soup. And um… Seaweed has like iron in it, I believe. And in your blood… Your like hemoglobin has iron in it as well? So Korean reasoning is that, whenever a woman gives birth, she loses a lot of blood with that. So to make up for it, you should have food that can supply your body with iron, such as Miyeok Guk and seaweed. So on birthdays, in addition to like cake and just like normal birthday routines, the traditional side of it is eating Miyeok Guk and seaweed… For the iron that your mom lost. 


Informant: I do practice this. Cause I like Miyeok Guk.

Interviewer: So you’re really consuming it for the taste? 

Informant: Yeah… I mean… I also think that we all have a desire to keep our culture going. I think when we’re younger it was easy to forget about and not care. Like, “Who cares what they’ve done for a thousand years, Imma do me…” My dad was born in Korea but moved to Guam and later Hawaii and later Anaheim. So he’s very Americanized. My mom didn’t leave Korea until college, so she was always the more traditional Korean side of the family… But my dad and I are more Americanized. Um… But yeah, as time has gone on, I feel like it’s good to keep some things, even if it has zero significance or importance… Even if it’s just soup that reminds me of my mom, it’s nice to continue on with those little traditions. 


Korean birthday tradition honors the mother by including food that recognizes the hardship of childbirth. The informant, while also consuming Miyeok Guk for taste, has grown to appreciate this food as a symbol of his mother. This is multifaceted, as Miyeok Guk is both a Korean symbol of the mother in general, but also a reminder of the informant’s mother specifically, who passed this tradition onto him. This demonstrates how food can have a “broad” cultural significance, but also a more intimate, immediate, familial significance. Thus, there are several reasons that food traditions might be upheld. This tradition also seems to hint at an appreciation for the mother within Korean culture. 

Practical Joke: Putting Butter on Your Nose

Main Piece: 

“So, the other thing that is family folklore that my dad probably did to you was- he said it was a French-Canadian custom to try and catch the birthday person… if it’s your birthday, he’s going to try and catch you and put butter on your nose. Which is really disgusting. And sometimes it would be- we got smarter, and so we would hide the butter -and so he would do peanut butter. Which in some ways is worse, because it’s really hard to get peanut butter off of anything. You smell like peanut butter all day. So, thanks Dad. ”


My informant said that this practical joke was a tradition on her father’s side of the family. Her father apparently went through the same thing, as did all the kids in his family. On their birthdays, someone would catch them and put butter on their nose. My informant casts some doubt on whether or not this was actually a French-Canadian custom rather than something someone on her father’s side made up for fun, but that was what she was told. 


My informant suggests that this practical joke could be fakelore- something that someone on her father’s side came up that they said was a French-Canadian custom with that has since been proliferated. However, I did find another source that mentions this as a Canadian custom: a children’s book on birthday customs. See Powell, Jillian. “A Birthday.” United States: Smart Apple Media, 2007. 1-30. Though a less serious occasion, this seems similar in some ways to Irish practical jokes at wakes or family practical jokes at weddings- the focus is on the fun of the joke, not the feelings of the person for whom the event is for. All of these are times of liminality, and the practical jokes can serve as a way to cope with that.

Celebration of Survival- Infant Edition

Main Performance:

The Dol (돌) is the celebration of an infant’s first birthday in South Korea. Childbirth and its complications in an impoverished country without advances in medicine and temperamental weather patterns meant that many children did not survive long past birth. Many children were kept in-doors as a means of protection and as a necessity for survival. Milestones for a child’s survival are celebrated on the 100th Day (백일) and then a large celebration is held on the first birthday where the wider family gathers for the occasion as the belief goes that once a child survives until its first year, the next hundred will be guaranteed. The Dol is characterized by a feast of traditional foods and also the an activity at the end called Dol-jabi (돌잡이) where a child is placed in front of multiple items. Bills of money, golf-balls, pieces of string, microphones, all sorts of objects are placed in front of the child and whichever object the child reaches for first will determine their success in that field. Reaching out to the string guarantees their long life, the microphone meaning that they will become a talented entertainer, a golf-ball for a pro golfer, money for being good with money, and etc.


The informant is my father who remembers me and my brother’s 1st Birthdays, 100th Day, and many other occasions involving the extended family. As Korea was still a developing country during his childhood and farther back, the reasons for celebrating a child’s survival is by no means a small matter. While the 100 Day celebrations have been phased out because of the advances in medicine, the first birthday is still widely celebrated. Of course, more modern items have been added to the myriad of objects placed in front of the child in the dol-jabi activity as the years go on.


My nephew had just celebrated his 1st Birthday on the 1st of May and I asked on the specifics of what the event pertained to and both of my parents explained what they did for me and my brother’s, which I have seen pictures of but have no recollection of.

My Thoughts:

It’s been stated multiple times that many Korean traditions stem from its impoverishment and I think no other element reflects that fact better than the celebration of a child’s survival past birth. The homeopathic magic comes into play to determine what the child’s preferences will be in the future as well, a determinant little “game” that I’ve also seen in other country’s. I find this story a lot more relevant these days because of the Covid pandemic and the world’s inability to contain the situation during 2020 that makes these life celebrations relevant again, especially when I hear about so many people trying to not have kids as their outlook on the world’s future becomes dimmer and dimmer. Korea in particular has had an issue about declining birth rates and my cousin and her son gave me some first had examples of the Korean government stepping in to promote childbirth and giving her family a large amount of federal money because she had given birth, giving credence to “government sponsored culture vs. tradition” going on. While I have heard some humorous conspiracy theories about Japan promoting marriage and procreation through positive portrayals of romance in their multi-media, I have not heard the same in the Korean context.

For a Chinese equivalent, see the Zhuazhou celebration:

The Tradition of Zhuazhou, 15 Feb. 2011, www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2011-02/15/content_12016991.htm.