The Birthday Dirge

Informant Background

            My informant, JC, is my father. He attended Dartmouth College, and was an active member of the Dartmouth Outing Club, or DOC. He recalls this tradition of a birthday dirge that was sung for members’ birthdays.

Piece of Folklore:

            JC: “Also at the Ravine Lodge – which is a public mountain lodge staffed by Dartmouth students – I witnessed several times the ritual of how the student staff honors someone’s birthday after dinner was served in the lodge. The lights would go out, plunging everyone seated at the long wooden tables into darkness. A procession would emerge through the swinging doors of the kitchen, the lead person carrying a massive sheet cake filled with lit candles, followed by a somber line of staffers holding hardcover books in front of them with both hands. They would then serenade the birthday person with a dirge — with those carrying books smacking the books against the foreheads after every line. As I recall the lyrics from memory:

            It’s your birthday. (SMACK)

            Oh, happy birthday. (SMACK)

            Sickness, darkness and despair

            People dying everywhere.

            On your birthday. (SMACK)

            Oh, happy birthday. (SMACK)







            This birthday dirge has a number of names and variations, such as “The Viking Birthday Chant,” “The Barbarian Birthday Song,” and “The Mongolian Birthday Chant.” It is sung to the tune of an old Russian folk song called the “Volga Boatmen.”* There are many more verses recorded in other places than this one, but no record that I could find of either the final “One day closer to death” or the embellishment of hitting their foreheads with thick books, although grunts are common. The song is common among historical re-enactors, especially the SCA, or Society of Creative Anachronism. JC is not sure when or how the song was introduced into the DOC repertoire but said that it is primarily used for entertainment and to see the surprise of the guests of the lodge.

* Lalor, Brendan. “The Birthday Dirge.” There It Is, 12 May 2015,