Dear readers, it’s a year since Masala Chai was launched and we’ve had a great time cooking up stories for you. This week we thought about posting something related to birthday celebrations. Not so long ago, our friend Heidi Keller was in Baroda for an academic programme during which time she stayed briefly at a local hotel near the University before moving into the guest house. In this post, we revisit her experiences at the hotel that triggered a discussion about how birthday celebrations she witnessed have evolved into a unique amalgamation of different traditions, a bit of this and a bit of that. This prompted Pooja to listen in closely to her own daughters and also look around at the birthday parties she attends in Dubai, after which we decided to create a post about birthday celebrations for young children. Children and adults think differently about birthday celebrations. In some societies, birthdays were not even observed annually, it was only the important landmarks that were marked by ritual observances. In India, a lunar calendar of the number of moons (read full moon nights) one has ‘seen’ is a significant marker of maturity among some Hindu communities. Annual celebrations in the form of birthday parties is a relatively recent introduction.
When is my birthday?
Pooja’s daughters are at an age when queries about birthdays starts a few months after one has just gone by. She writes: Every other day they will ask “How many more days for my birthday?” And if you try to provide a vague answer, it is promptly followed up with a retort like “Five days back you said 240 days and today you saying 250 days?” I really don’t mind their questions, and can understand the excitement about feeling special, but sometimes it becomes too much. Then I try to twist it into a math problem, “Three months to go. Each month has 30 days. So you tell me how many days left for your birthday?” This strategy is quite successful in getting her off my back.
But the question never ends with an answer, “How many days to S’s birhtday?” and so on…
The excitement for celebrating the birthday is such that not being invited to each others birthday party is the biggest threat that can make an otherwise stubborn sibling to agree doing whats desired by the other.
Birthday parties are frequent social events for us. With two kids and their circle of friends, little time passes before another one arrives and the cycle of questions and answers is triggered again. Usually, this is a time when we usually stand around watching others and waiting for the children to be done with their day. For me, personally, this is a valuable opportunity to watch children and families interact, so I often choose to be the parent to drive them back and forth while their Dad can catch up on his weekend naps.
During these events, I have noticed that in addition to the rather universal practice of blowing out candles and cake-cutting to the birthday song, every family has specific additions to the celebrations that could be identified as “cultural”. Let me illustrate what I mean. It was A’s best friend’s birthday party. Her parents, both from Egypt, have spent most of their lives outside of their native country (US and Canada) before settling in Dubai, where they now live. As the cake arrived on the beautifully decorated table, the candles were blown the child stood with her mother and father, looking at everyone singing for her the birthday song followed by one in Arabic, a cheerful and happy song I couldn’t understand the lyrics of. I reminisced about our childhood and remembered that our birthdays used to be small events, usually a special meal with a few close friends and family who lived close-by. No one would pick up and drop their children in those days, so if you were close enough (in distance), you were invited. In the small city where we lived, there were very few bakeries and since many mothers didn’t have a great hand at baking, cakes were a rare sight. But the meal was usually very special and everyone enjoyed a great treat. I don’t remember having cake-cutting ceremonies among my circle of friends.
Birthdays in Baroda
Our German friend, Heidi Keller is an academic. She is tall and imposing, and absolutely loves to travel to India and University of Baroda is her favourite destination. Based mostly at the University of Osnabrueck in Germany, she has long standing career in the field of children’s development and family studies, looking closely at the role of culture in development. Her international collaborations are spread all over the world, and her ordinary observations during her travels are a veritable goldmine of information about family life and the care of children, an informal supplement to the immense amount of academic writing in the field. “Cultures of Infancy” stands out as a masterpiece, dealing with the ways in which infants are cared for in different parts of the world.
She has travelled to India several times, to the north and west, to villages, small towns and cities. The sights and sounds of the local people, the colours and flavours, are all very special experiences that she loves to revisit for, in addition to the academic side of her trips. On her recent trip just a couple of months ago, we received a rather curious email from her. For a short period of time, she was housed at a local hotel since there was no place at the University Guest House. For her meals, she preferred to eat in the dining area where she could spend time watching families come and go. Evidently, the restaurant at this hotel was a popular destination for birthday parties and Heidi got to witness many of these during her stay. Her questions to us related to some of her observations of the goings on at the parties.
Feeding the adults
In her words “Greetings from Baroda. I need to share an observation I made last night in a restaurant. There was obviously a family celebration of a (maybe) 2-year-old child, it seemed. At least there was a little birthday cake with two little candles on the table in the centre.” So after the candle-blowing etc. she observed something that she found quite curious. “A man, maybe the father, took pieces from the cake and put them into the mouth of everybody else, with the other people returning the favour and taking pictures of every pair-feeding.” Everyone fed everyone else, it seemed. “The child was also offered a piece, but she did not want any and nobody insisted. A bit later, she took some pieces from her mother on her own. I am trying to imagine a German or American birthday party and this sort of group feeding would never follow a cake-cutting. It was something I had never seen before. I was thinking immediately of you and your thoughtful comments on that issue.”
“Yes Heidi. Feeding others and being fed by them remains one of the most pleasant aspects of food exchanges and this enthusiastic pair-feeding is commonly observed at the modern version of birthday parties among urban Indian families. This scene is common with the addition of the taking of pictures with every exchange. I suppose traditionally the exchanges of food may only happen between adults and children or between spouses in intimate moments. But certainly not between grandparents and parents and other adults. Like a daughter-in-law would not be feeding her father-in-law except if there was a health issue. So some of these exchanges would be more modern. However, feeding of others, especially children (whatever their age may be) is an act imbued with affection and indulgence. Perhaps that it why it has become a popular practice for the cake-cutting followed by feeding ritual in birthday parties. In a way, this can also be linked to the tradition of ‘prasad’, the offering of token food following a prayer. Prasad can freely be offered to anyone by anyone, it may be placed in the mouth for people who are closer or placed in another person’s palm for others. This food is symbolic of a blessing and no one usually refuses to eat this when offered; no matter who is making the offer. Perhaps the ritual of cake-cutting has become interlaced with a cultural angle of prasad creating a syncretic arrangement of completely different world-views. But tell us a bit more about how it would happen in a German family.”
“Thank you, what you say is very interesting, the mixing of the Prasad and the birthday party -. actually I do not know whether the adults were several generations – I did not want to stare too obviously at them…what was most astonishing to me was that men fed each other….In Germany, a middle class family like this would have all sat down, the mother of the baby would have cut proper pieces, put them on plates in front of everybody. Then they would sing happy birthday – what the Indian family also did by the way – and make the baby blow out the candles – the Indian family did not light them, when I observed correctly, everybody would cheer the baby and then start individual conversations, not like the back and forth that was happening among the Indian family members – that was so interesting!”
To this Pooja responds: “You know initially in our family, my parents will not light up candles on cake. Their reason was that on any auspicious occasion you should light up lamps and not blow them out…, but that has changed. In many families I have seen there is one extra candle than the child’s age and all are blown off except that extra one. That extra candle is then placed at the place of worship.”
The next day, as this email conversation proceeds between us, Heidi chances upon another birthday party and writes: “Thanks for sharing the cultural knowledge – this is so interesting. Tonight I learned another lesson…. another birthday party of a child, probably older, the party was set out on the terrace exclusively, so I could not see much… a square cake was brought in without candles (the one yesterday was round). After a while the waiter brought back the cake with a small piece missing. Then the waiter cut it into numerous pieces, put one piece on a plate and served it to the people….Cultural variations within the same people. Tomorrow I will be moved to the guest house and miss my evening cultural adventures – but certainly others will come up.”
The missing piece
“A small piece missing? Well I do know that many families ritually put aside the first bite of their food as an offering to god (to be given away to another being, bird, insect) but I cannot be sure of that was the reason. Perhaps the first bite was given to the child and parents.”
The ‘Culture Trip’
As we searched around for other references to the unique combination of rituals that have evolved into the “typical” birthday celebrations that we have, we found a delightful article titled “Seven unique ways birthdays are celebrated in India”. On the e-magazine Culture Trip, Lucy Plummer writes that “Cake feeding” is perhaps the most practiced and unique aspects of Indian birthday celebrations. “Arguably the most practiced (and definitely the most fun!) is the feeding of the birthday cake. After ‘Happy Birthday’ is sung, in English or in Hindi, the birthday girl or boy will cut into the cake first. They will then cut a small piece of cake and feed it to each guest by hand, usually starting with closest family members, then moving on to everyone else. Once everyone has had a bite, family and guests then take turns in feeding the birthday girl or boy in return. Among the younger crowd, it is quite common to take this opportunity to smother the guest of honour’s face with cake.” Some of her other observations can be found at: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/india/articles/7-unique-ways-birthdays-celebrated-india/We would love to know what your experiences have been regarding birthday celebration,your comments about this post as well as birthday celebrations in your part of the world. So do send in your comments to us in the space below. We love hearing from you.
I second what Pooja has shared regarding the number of candles and putting it away in “mandir”. As a young child I remember attending birthday celebrations of my neighborhood friend and her siblings (who were financially very well off). They used to invite all the children to their decorated house, would cut the cake and afterwards all the children used to sit around in their huge drawing room waiting eargerly for their turn to be served with cake , wafers and toffees! However this tradition of cake cutting was not very common in my family my mother used to prepare something sweet like halwa or kheer first followed by a special meal or snack preferably in the evening. Cakes were cut very rarely probably because bigger cakes were expensive and a smaller one wouldn’t have suffice the joint family. So each birthday was made special with homemade food. Even today when I recently celebrated my birthday my mother asked me what special dish I prepared! 😀
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