Illustration from Little Robin Red Breast, A Collection of Pretty Songs (Worcester, 1786), p. 42.

I’ve been putting the finishing touches on an essay on age in American history, and one of the editors asked me what seemed like a completely reasonable question, viz., “did everyone in early America know their birthdays and their exact ages?”  I had to confess that I didn’t even know if birthdays were common knowledge among Anglo-Americans, let alone Native Americans, enslaved Africans or African Americans, or French colonists. I figure that the iced layer-cake with candles on it appeared in the later nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, but I had no clue about colonial North American birthday awareness or celebrations thereof.

A little research on birthdays (or “birth-days,” as it’s more usually spelled in eighteenth-century English-language printed material) suggests that around the turn of the eighteenth century if not earlier, the annual acknowledgement of Anglo-American birthdays appears to have been commonplace.  Thomas Foxcroft wrote in  The day of a godly man’s death, better than the day of his birth (Boston, 1722) that “The anniversary celebration of birth-days is an ancient custom,” 31.  Unfortunately, Foxcroft didn’t leave it at that:

To commemorate our birth and beginning is what the duty of every day requires:  however it may be the more special work of an anniversary day, provided all superstition and abuse be avoided.  The civil observation of birthdays, and making natalitial entertainments practised by persons of distinction, who on such occasions have the company and receive the civilities of their Friends, as well as confer favours on their Servants and Dependents, is a usage in it self lawful, and innocent enough if due regard be had to the rules of christian sobriety and moderation.

But to devote such days. . . to perfect Idleness, Luxury, and extravagant mirth, is to bid defiance to their great Creator, to contradict the ends and reasons of their birth, and to act as if they were sent into the world only to serve their bellys, and gratify the lusts of the flesh.  Methinks, in the solemnization of one’s birth-day, retirement with fasting and prayer, were a greater propriety than carnal feasting and merriment with others.

It seems more agreeable and proper to observe it as a time of humiliation, than of rejoycing:  at least there should be a pious mixture of humble and devout reflections upon such an occasion:  For what was the day, which we commemorate?  Truly a day full of unhappy circumstances, that call for a godly sorrow and shame.  One observes, That an eminent Person, in his Diaries as often as his Birth-day arrived, wrote this:  Dio Calamitatis, i.e. A CALAMITOUS DAY unto me.  A day therefore it is for a man to afflict his Soul in.

At such a time we shoul’d seriously reflect on the guilt, pollution, misery and danger, which attends us in the day of our Birth.  It shou’d deeply affect us to consider, what we were born; Ignorant, sinful, miserable Creatures:  Children of wrath, Children of the Devil, and Heirs of Hell.

I can understand why mothers might reflect on their children’s birthdays  in that fashion, but I don’t understand why the celebrant would need to see it that way.

Who am I kidding?  I probably see birthdays much more along the lines that Foxcroft did than I like to admit.  I tend to go on long runs around my birthday, sometimes at 12,000 feet, which might fall more on the “time of humiliation, than of rejoycing” side of things.  I have also been known to spend my birthdays fasting (or at least eating carefully), but I have never in my life been caught in prayer on a birthday.  In other words, I can totally relate to the birthday as “a day full of unhappy circumstances, that call for a godly sorrow and shame,” minus the godly part, but not for reasons that Foxcroft would approve of.

What are your grownup birthday traditions?  Does anyone out there “reflect on the guilt, pollution, misery and danger, which attends us in the day of our Birth?”

24 thoughts on “A CALAMITOUS DAY unto me!

  1. I now feel I’ve been missing out all these years, what with forgetting to reflect on “guilt, pollution, misery, and danger” on the 30th of March!

    As an adult, aged 32 this year, I have reached a sort of neutral period vis a vis celebration. My wife and I usually make a point of having a nice meal, or similar. My family and a few close friends mark the day with presents and cards. It’s no longer the festive party occasion from when I was a child; I don’t yet — and do not plan to develop, actually — have a habit of denying ageing or being angry at the world that time passes and I am growing older.

    Part of it is that I truly LIKE being a grown-up, so there is not some carefree childhood that my inner soul longs to return to, most of the time. I’m content where I am, so don’t see my birthday as the reminder of opportunities missed, etc.

    Also, when I was nineteen I was in a fairly bad car accident in which I could well have died. Thankfully my only injury was a concussion (others were not so lucky), but I think that experience of believing in those moments before I blacked out that this was literally IT, I was dying, have meant that I try not to spend the days and years I do have, now, anticipating death and being upset that I haven’t accomplished “enough” or that I supposedly “wasted” time. I don’t see that as a very productive way to reflect upon my life, forward or backward.


  2. I always like to do the long birthday run, too–for me, it’s the most important part of the birthday. I taught a student one year whose father liked to run his age in miles on his birthday. His birthday fell on December 24, and so he would disappear for hours on Christmas eve, leaving the rest of the family to cope with holiday preparations. I think at some point he had to switch to running his age in kilometers. The student was very funny describing this tradition.


  3. I ran 9 miles yesterday and my legs are sore!

    I like to run with friends who are training for half-marathons and marathons, but not to actually run said races. Running is more fun for me if I don’t have to do any thinking or goal-planning.

    I don’t want to think how ill-equipped I am to run my age in either miles or kilometers. We’re talking ultra-marathoning numbers, almost!


  4. My birthday occurs right at the end of spring semester, so I am usually busy attending end-of-year meetings, having final classes, and giving instructions for the final exam. Still, I usually try to do something fun on my birthday, such as going running, and this year, because it was my 50th, I went to a baseball game. Interesting question: is it better for a professor to have a birthday at the beginning or the end of the academic year?


  5. It all depends on whether you’re into the day of solemn humiliation and thinking about yourself as the spawn of Satan, or whether you’re more prone to idleness, luxury, and extravagant mirth. It seems to me that your b-day is more inclined to the latter, while mine is better suited to the former.

    Ah, well: at least the President isn’t coming to town to screw it all up again this year.


  6. Interesting question: is it better for a professor to have a birthday at the beginning or the end of the academic year?

    As a May 9th baby, I can answer this one: The end of the academic year is absolutely the best time to have a birthday! Double bonus fun points if you’re in an academic field where you get to go to Kalamazoo and drink homebrewed mead!


  7. I have for many years asked for snow on my birthday.

    One year I could not get away from my office on the appointed day so my boys brought the snow to me–fresh, in a cooler. Our first snowy day with babies, they screamed their little lungs out the whole time we were outside of the truck (but that might have been because their mother insisted on hats). It goes better now.


  8. This should be a meme: “It shou’d deeply affect us to consider, what we were born; Ignorant, sinful, miserable Creatures: Children of wrath, Children of the Devil, and Heirs of Hell.” How many do we get to choose? I think “Heirs of Hell” ought to do it.

    I am always teaching on my birthday, always–except this year.


  9. I was in the hospital on this last birthday, getting replacement parts installed. The nurses noticed it was my birth-day and brought me a cupcake with a candle.

    But more seriously: lots of Americans did not know their birthdays, I think. One might not be in a position to register it, but more importantly, were not birthdays and death days written in a bible? So literacy might have been a bar to knowing one’s birthday. And I have seen registers of enslaved people in which the birth year was approximate.


  10. Oh, I totally “reflect on the guilt, pollution, misery and danger, which attends us in the day of our Birth?” 1) I had to go to church every year on my birthday as a kid because my birthday happens to be a Roman Catholic “Holy Day of Obligation.” 2) Because my birthday coincides with the start of the academic year, I always fall into a funk in which I think about all the things that I Should Do Differently and Might Have Done Differently in the Past. 3) I always talk to my mom on my birthday (duh!) but we tend every year to rehash the tale of my dad not being there to drive her to the hospital because he was working third shift at the steel mill, and the car that she went to the hospital in had rusted out floors so she was Very Concerned that I would pop out on the way and end up in the street!

    On an unrelated note, I think that the celebration/acknowledgment of birthdays varies by culture even today. My stepdad is Lebanese, and a much bigger deal than his birthday is his “Name Day” (the holy day of the saint after which he was named).


  11. My department arranges a birthday card with all faculty signing in for our birthdays. Usually, it’s meaningless.

    In our family, wife and kids – me and kids, we all call the celebrant with warm wishes. It’s nice, warm, traditional and caring.

    I do nothing special unless it’s an important birthday. For example, on my 60th the locally present kids arranged a dinner, presents and wishes.


  12. I don’t care how old I get, cake will always be a requirement for my birthday (together with thinking about my polluted soul). My birthday falls right around our Fall Break, which is marvelous because I can string together–sometimes–four or five years in a row without teaching on my birthday. This year I am teaching on my birthday, but as I am teaching a material culture course (as well as two sections of survey) on said day, the students are reading a chapter on cake and candles and will be celebrating my birthday with cake, candles, party hats, and a pin the tail on the donkey game. We will have chocolate cake at 8:00 in the morning.


  13. ProfSweddy: that is awesome!

    (But I will give up cake every time in favor of a bonus cocktail, which is probably harder to swing at 8 a.m. with a roomful of students. So cake is probably the way to go.)

    Dr. Crazy: you must have been born on the Assumption of Mary. A feast day, for ye child of wrath!

    Tenured Radical: You are correct that enslaved people especially didn’t know their birthdays, or even birth years, although there are colonial records kept by masters that are pretty exact in specifying the ages of their human property. Age was very important for free Euro-American boys and men, less so but still important for girls and women, as there were all kinds of customs, rights and responsibilities that attended specific ages (the responsibility for one’s confession; ability to convert to another religion; legal right to refuse repatriation after a war ends; jury duty, voting, the right to marry, etc.)

    So, free people paid attention to this stuff, even if they didn’t necessarily share that information with their slaves & even though enslaved people weren’t entitled to any of the rights or responsibilities I listed above.


  14. Petition and representation of John Mcandrew, labourer, Stix, explaining why he upset the gig when driving to overtake the post with Lord Glenorchy’s letters: ‘he was sent to Achmore, and upon his arrival found the servants celebrating Lord Glenorchy’s birthday. The petitioner mingled with them and was in a manner forced to drink rather too much’ (1807)

    My sense on 18thC Scotland was that many people knew their Birth DAY, but not always the year. Celebrating birthdays with drinks, toasts and other celebrations can be found from the 17thC, and you can find examples of many people, especially men, who know their age and celebrate special birthdays (like 50 or whatever). But, equally, there is a lot of evidence that people only know roughly what age they are, and age is judged a) by how old you look (which has an interesting class dynamic), and b) by what events you can remember in childhood. Many people report knowing their age based on their mother’s reports, but have no other record and/or can’t be sure how accurate that was. Unsurprisingly, heirs to estates often have a record as it was legally important to know when they are ‘age’, but younger children and women not so much. Amongst the poor, I suspect this ambiguity around age was deliberately used to advantage when necessary.


  15. My birthday is on Valentine’s Day, so unless I make plans months in advance, I can’t get a dinner reservation, and even then, most people have other plans with their sweet-hearts. Last year I had dinner with a speaker–I didn’t tell them it was my birthday. In previous years, I have cooked an indulgent meal for myself and usually grade papers as it is the middle of the semester.


  16. Thanks FA for that info on birthdays in Scotland. I imagine your adults were engaged in what people who study these things call “age heaping,” or the tendency to report one’s age as an age ending in a 0, 5, or a 6.

    Katherine: that’s a drag. For some reason, we always seem to have job candidates in town on V-day, and it’s a challenge to find a restaurant that can take 4-6 people. (One of my dinners as a job candidate here was on Valentine’s Day, too.)


  17. I did the job candidate dinner thing (as the candidate) on Valentine’s day once. It was pretty weird, but what wasn’t weird about being a candidate? A big table with five people talking about research strategy and teaching techniques and no candles, surrounded by ten small tables with candle-lit couples, no big whoop.

    I’ve always liked having a birthday “aligned” (to get admino-demic about it) with the onset of the school year, at least back before Labor Day became fall break. I think it gets the personal biorythms harmonized with the hermeneutical-semestrial phases, plus the air often has a more pleasant feel. No self-flagellation at all.


  18. I’m probably an outlier on this but since my mother recited her 12 hour labor story—and the resultant “frank breech” delivery of me, her first child, in gruesome detail every year, I think “calamitous” fits the bill. Being a good New Englander with a good education, she might have even read and been influenced by this quoted passage. Who knows?

    On historical knowledge? I’ve seen enough “c.1704” and “about 15 years” on all sorts of records prior to 1820 or so to make me think that people were often unclear on at least the precise year they were born but often seem to know the month if not the exact day in that month.


  19. Happy birthday, dear H’ann!

    I have no birthday traditions – my family prompts me to provide gift suggestions, so I receive gifts. There’s usually a nice meal somewhere around my birthday when most of us can get together. It’s not philosophy, it’s the time of year (end of term and coinciding with big conferences as well as other events). I refuse to be a dour birth-day party-pooper as with your Mr. Foxcroft: I just have more fun with other people’s birthdays.


  20. I have a beginning of the academic year birthday (this past weekend) and it will, for the rest of my career be around the start of classes. I come from a family that is very liturgical (small l), and which observes these things. So I tend to have a nice dinner, or some times I will throw myself a pot luck party. My husband’s birthday was just before mine, our anniversary a week after, so we always did at least one *really* good dinner around the end of August. For several years, I had dinner with a colleague on my birthday, and this was a lovely tradition. This year I left town to go to the big city, have a nice dinner, and go to a museum. The friends I was staying with had bought a pie, and then the next day we stopped for tea and I had cake. All in all, a nice day. Next year is 60, and I have to think about how I’ll observe that.

    Fortunately, my mother rarely recites the tale of my father being off drinking with his brothers when she went into labor with me (she was ironing!), or that the ob-gyn was at the movies and arrived just in time to deliver me. I do not contemplate being a “Ignorant, sinful, miserable Creatures: Children of wrath, Children of the Devil, and Heirs of Hell.”

    As for my 17th C subjects, I don’t think many of them think about birthdays, and they think vaguely about age. I suspect it has to do with the fact that age was a pretty irrelevant category for most of them. The date recorded in parish registers was, of course, the date of the baptism: close to the birth, but not usually the same day.


  21. Historiann, I’ve just seen this. . .people in the 17th c did not know (or mark) their birthdays. See Howard Chudacoff’s book, How Old Are YOu? for details.


  22. Thanks, MB! I do need to consult Chudacoff–thanks for the reminder.

    However, I’ve found lots of 18th C evidence that birthdays and specific ages are things that were noted and remembered, especially for younger people: the few women’s diaries we have record the birthdays of their children; women especially (like Martha Ballard) are highly age-conscious on behalf of their children. And there are loads of civil and church laws related to ages 12-21 (Holly Brewer’s book, By Birth or Consent) that suggest that many parents and children were aware of significant milestones and even civil responsibilities that come with age.

    I think that when it comes to adults, “about” an age was probably a popular concept. After 21, and before the birth of the welfare state, there really aren’t any milestones to look forward to!


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