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?”
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