I forgot my birthday

Well, technically I haven’t forgotten it yet this year, but most years I do indeed forget my birthday.

If a robot sings Happy Birthday on Mars and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a robot sings Happy Birthday on Mars and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

So.

For people that don’t forget their birthdays and want to celebrate, there is apparently a group of killjoys roaming the earth that would ban self-hosted or self-organized birthday merrymaking:

“But modern Western culture is predominated by a belief that the individual is owed recognition, accolades, respect, honor and gifts for reaching certain life milestones and if friends and family won’t do it, then they feel justified in taking matters into their own hands to make sure they are sufficiently and deservedly honored.  Humility is a dying character trait.”

Or … people like excuses to party and a birthday provides the perfect excuse.  Using one’s own birthday as an excuse to party is not inherently honoring oneself, because that’s not how birthday parties work anymore.  Birthdays are fantastic excuses to drop everything and party – just by virtue of the fact that there are 365 possible days a year for people to have birthdays and only around 10 or so of those days are official holidays, there’s a good chance that any given person’s birthday falls between established holidays.  It’s a nice deviation in the routine and a break from reality.  Similar to how a beloved patron saint’s feast day works in certain cultures.

Yes, etiquette supposedly forbids hosting a party where people bring you gifts.  But somehow hostess gifts are okay, as are wedding gifts.  It is true that certain types of people cannot move past the idea that “birthday party” = “bring me presents,” and I agree that such an attitude and expectation is very childish.  And yet they still accuse those of us who do not expect gifts of being childish, as if they simply cannot believe that people would throw a party and not expect gifts.  Cultural norms change, and sometimes for the better.

In my circle, when it’s your birthday it’s your turn to host everyone.  That’s how the reciprocation of hospitality works for us.  As a result, I have been to many self-hosted birthday parties but never to one where the birthday person receives any sort of gift.  The only exception is a hostess gift (which authorities agree is allowable) if they are hosting a party at their house with all the planning, decorating, cooking, and alcohol that it entails.  Etiquette calls for reciprocation of hospitality; if you take your turn on your birthday because everyone takes their turn on their birthday, what does it matter?

Answer: It doesn’t.

But because that would limit our ability to be judgmental and haughty, we can’t possibly look at it that way.

TL/DR: Cultural norms change.  It’s a thing; look it up.


Some other choice quotes:

Poor commenter Athena (not me!) asks:

“I’m holding a wine tasting party for my birthday, and I’m paying for everything. Am I consigned to eHell?”

My response:

It depends on who is on call the day of your Judgment.  If it’s someone from a generation or two ago, you are certainly doomed.  To be safe, you should avoid planning any sort of social event or even leaving the house (except for work and limited grocery shopping) for a full 30 days before and after each birthday or half-birthday, lest any intentional or unintentional frivolity be seen as shamelessly honoring yourself.  It does not matter that you are paying for everything or that you do not expect gifts.  Anything you plan in the vicinity of your birthday shall be deemed to be a “self-hosted birthday party” and you shall be found a “selfish gimme-pig.”

On the other hand, someone from our generation (say, ages 20 – 40 or so), will likely have much more sense.  They would tell you not to give it a second thought and go have a blast.  It’s your birthday, after all, and you clearly do not have the expectation of being “honored” or being showered with gifts – what could possibly be wrong with having a good time and sharing the occasion with whomever you want?

UPDATE:

I was totally joking about the “no events 30 days before and after” bit, but commenter Daphne contributed:  “just don’t call it a birthday party, and better yet don’t have it on or near your birthday.” (emphasis mine)  So what I said in jest apparently people are actually saying in seriousness.

Commenter kingsrings says:

“And now awaiting all the comments on here disagreeing with admin, crying foul over her opinion, and naming all the reasons why it’s okay to throw your own birthday party. I predict that the biggest counter-argument will be that it is acceptable practice in other countries to do that, so it’s okay.”

Um – yes.  That’s how it works.  Interesting that even though etiquette is a collection of culture-specific customs, we have people arrogant enough to insist, “Customs be damned – everyone must do everything in a way that makes sense to ME and MY culture.”  We’re not talking about universals of natural law (ex. slavery, human sacrifice), we are talking about culture-specific, morally neutral customs.

In fact, commenter Goldie says that in her country, “As an adult, you were EXPECTED to throw a birthday party for yourself and invite people, especially if it was a big milestone like 30, 40, 50 and so on. People would be hurt and confused if a friend of theirs skipped out of throwing a birthday party – you kind of owed them a celebration.”  RJ adds: “Living on Crete for a time I discovered that Greek people celebrate their Saint’s name day not their birthday: Dimitri would celebrate on St James, Costas or Cristina on St Christopher’s day. But no invitations were issued! Friends were expected to know all the saints’ days and to know that on Christopher’s day Costas would of course be ready to host guests.  Costas would therefore prepare a feast and hope his friends turned up to the party!”

From the admin:

“The first question you should be asking yourself is, ‘Why do I need a birthday party after the age of 18?’ You and others appear to have this unrealistic and selfish expectation that the world owes you a party and if your cretin friends won’t do it, you’ll take matters into your own hands to make certain you get the requisite party marking some age milestone. The second question that apparently no ever asks themselves is, ‘If I consider my birthday that important, why have I not considered the feelings of others in regards to their birthdays and taken the effort to host a party for them?’ ”

To answer the second question first, everyone knows their own birthday.  It’s administratively easier to plan something for a date you already know.

To answer the first question, of course no one “needs” a birthday party; no one is arguing such. Also, no one “needs” to socialize with friends or “needs” to host a dinner party or “needs” to meet coworkers for drinks. There are a host of things that no one “needs” to do and yet we do them anyway because they provide enjoyment to all involved.

What bothers me is that the specific prohibition from hosting a party (that presumably everyone would find enjoyable) on one’s own birthday lends far more weight to the idea that a birthday is “special” somehow than any party could.

From the admin again:

“There are 364 days and 51 other weeks in which to gather friends together to offer them hospitality yet quite a few commenters appear to have deceived themselves into believing they must have an excuse to entertain friends, in particular using the occasion of their own birthday.”

Yes.  That’s how it works when times are lean and money is short. like it has been for a lot of people these last few years.  You do need an”excuse” to do anything financially beyond the bare necessities.  Goldie adds, “I guess maybe because we grew up with a shortage of everything, people weren’t throwing parties for their friends just because, for no reason. It would’ve been weird.”

As much as I ordinarily hate the phrase, it applies here: “Admin, check your privilege!


Final thoughts –

It’s also pretty amusing to flip through the comments and watch people talk past each other on this issue.  In reading these conversations one would never guess that the point of communication is to convey ideas toward a goal of mutual understanding.  Apparently the goal of communication is a trial by combat in which one bludgeons the other person with the same words and phrases over and over until they walk away out of frustration.

I’m just glad I don’t have to put up with anyone like this in real life.

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7 comments

  1. Some of those comments from other countries sound familiar. When I lived in Ukraine, women told me how they dreaded their birthdays and names days because they were responsible for putting on a feast for their friends. It was exhausting, they said! There were no presents, other than a bottle of champagne or a bag of oranges. Good wishes were expressed by toasts, not cards.

    I think one of the disconnects with the discussion you point to actually has to do with birthday presents. The problem originated because of the weird “I’ll open your card but not the present.” That is strange, but it’s also strange to get stressed about whether one is being thanked “properly.”

    Organizing your own birthday and expecting presents seems narcissistic; organizing your own birthday and offering hospitality seems charitable. Our culture assumes that the birthday is celebrating the one being born. If I organized a birthday party with my friends and invited my mother as the guest of honor, I don’t see how that’s narcissistic.

    I’ll go with Miss Manners. Etiquette is to make sure that people are treating each other decently, not that they are following arcane rules, such as “don’t call it a birthday.”

    1. That’s a great point – I had actually forgotten that there was the separate (but related) issue of the card and present that spurred this entire discussion.

      “Etiquette is to make sure that people are treating each other decently” – I completely agree. It is unfortunate that in practice (for example, ask vs. guess cultures) this isn’t always as intuitive as we would like, and even more unfortunate that an arbitrary checklist of archaic rules seems to serve as a proxy for measuring whether one is treating others decently or not.

  2. I don’t think the problem is the birthday party itself. I think the problem is the whole attitude of “an invitation is a summons” that goes on with a lot of hosts. This is especially bad with families in the local area. Not only do you have to see these people during holidays, you have to get together for their birthdays too? Why not just move in together and be done with it?

    1. Your comment is very timely – I hadn’t thought about that dynamic within families until just this last weekend. My MIL decided that we were all going camping for her “birthday weekend” and was initially incensed that husband, 2-year-old and I came home a day early simply because we were simply not going to suffer another night in a tent with the various issues specific to our particular family. She got over it pretty quickly, which I think had something to do with the fact that when the 2-year-old was gone, she was free to relax and enjoy the company of my two older girls.

      But you’re right – the closer the relationship, the more likely the invitation is treated as a summons. Among our friend group, we’ll reschedule birthday and other gatherings so people can make it, but that’s because everyone wants to be there.

  3. Is it okay to say I hate admin, whover they are???
    I gave myself a huge 50th and every one had a blast. No, I didn’t expect gifts, but I got some. The best one was a plunger!! Private joke.
    So, phooey on kill joys, and party hardy everyone!!

    Happy Birthday, Athena.
    Melinda

    1. If someone gave me a plunger I would be super excited – no inside-joke context needed!

      But yeah, that was my point – if everyone has a good time, what’s the issue? If “etiquette” is going to go to the trouble of arbitrarily forbidding fun, it’s time to rethink the “rules.”

      Good for you for throwing a 50th birthday bash – sounds like it was great!

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