Unusual birthday traditions around the world
Oban turns 20 this year – and to mark the occasion, we’re running a series of birthday-themed articles on our blog. In this post, we take a look at some of the most eye-catching birthday traditions around the world.
In North Korea, if your birthday falls on 17th December or 8th July, you’re out of luck, since you are under no circumstances allowed to celebrate. This is because Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il died on these dates, and the population is supposed to avoid any sign of celebration on their anniversaries. An estimated 100,000 North Koreans have their birthday on either 17th December or 8th July but many change their birthday by a day to avoid them.
Whereas in Western cultures, you are born and then live a year before celebrating your first birthday, in China, being born automatically gives you a birthday. In other words, at birth a child starts at 1 and then becomes 2 on their first birthday.
Although it is less common today, in some Chinese traditions, children would have another year added to their age on their first Lunar New Year’s Day. This means that by the time a child reached what would be considered their first birthday in Western cultures, they could be considered 3 according to Chinese tradition. Essentially, this approach marks how many years you’ve been alive in, rather than how many full cycles of 365 days you have lived.
Today, some Chinese people may celebrate to two birthdays. This is because China uses two calendric systems – i.e. the common calendar used in much of the world (the Gregorian calendar) and the traditional Chinese calendar (the Lunar calendar, which records time according to astronomical phenomenon). The two calendars usually don’t match, which means Chinese people can celebrate their birthday twice.
60th birthdays are especially significant in China. This is because someone who has reached 60 has completed a full Zodiac – that is, a full cycle of life. In Chinese astrology, twelve animals symbolise astrological signs. The Chinese calendar is based on the twelve signs (hence, the Year of the Tiger, and so on) plus five natural elements: metal, fire, water, earth and wood. This results in a 60 year cycle (5 x 12). Someone who has reached 60 has completed a full cycle of life, and thereafter begins a new cycle.
A traditional birthday food in Chinese culture is Yi Mein or longevity noodles. A longevity noodle is a long, unbroken egg noodle which fills a bowl. The idea is to slurp it up in one continuous strand, so as not to cut your life short.
An important birthday tradition in Mexico is the Quinceañera, which celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday. The celebration is meant to mark a girl’s entry into womanhood and involves a formal gown, dancing and a tiered cake. In some ways, it resembles a wedding ceremony. Other countries in Latin America have a similar tradition.
The Mexican birthday song is called Las Mañanitas, which was written in the 1950s. A Mexican birthday party tradition which has been successfully exported to other parts of the world is the Piñata – a papier-mâché figure which is hit by a stick until it bursts open, and sweets spill out for party guests to enjoy.
Up until the 1950s, celebrating individual birthdays was rare in Japan. Instead, everyone’s birthday would be celebrated on New Year’s Day, as – reflecting the collectivist nature of traditional Japanese society – that was the day everyone was considered to be one year older.
Over time, this has changed and now birthdays are celebrated individually, on the person’s actual birth date. Celebrations are similar to the West – a birthday cake, singing, small gatherings etc. The song ‘Happy Birthday’ is often sung in English, as there isn’t a Japanese equivalent – perhaps not surprising, given the cultural background. It’s not unusual for Japanese adults to celebrate their birthday with friends before the actual date, and to save the date itself to celebrate with their partner.
Another Japanese festival linked with birthdays and getting older is Coming of Age Day. This is a festival held annually on the second Monday in January. It celebrates everyone who has reached the age of 20 between 2nd April of the previous year and 1st April of the coming year. Seijin-shiki or coming of age ceremonies take place in city halls and public spaces to mark the age of adulthood. Women typically dress up in kimonos whilst men wear traditional Japanese dress or a suit and tie. In 2022, the legal age of adulthood in Japan has been reduced from 20 to 18 – it’s unclear how this will affect coming of age ceremonies. Check with a Local In-Market Expert if you’re planning a campaign.
In Bhutan, individual birthdays are not traditionally celebrated and many people don’t know their actual birthdate. This is for two reasons – one, their calendar is different and doesn’t tally with the Gregorian calendar and two, as a strong collectivist culture, individual birthdays aren’t considered important.
Bhutanese people do measure their age in years – so for administrative purposes, everyone in the country becomes a year older on the 1st January. However, things are changing – younger people or people who live in urban areas are starting to celebrate their own birthdays.
Birthdays are an individual celebration so it seems obvious that the more individualistic a culture, the more lavish individual birthday celebrations are likely to be – with the opposite true of collectivist cultures. Aside from its approach to birthdays, another sign of Bhutan’s collectivist culture is the fact that it focuses on measuring GNH (Gross National Happiness) rather than GDP, as we do in the West.
Vietnam is another country where traditionally, celebrating individual birthdays is rare. Instead, they have a countrywide birthday – everyone gets a year older on Vietnamese New Year, also known as Tết, which changes annually.
Similar to China, your age at birth starts at 1, instead of 0, and changes at Vietnamese New Year. For example, if you’re aged 29 and living in Vietnam at the time of New Year, you become 30 from the first day of Tết. Again: it’s about celebrating the number of years you’ve been alive in, rather than how many full cycles of 365 days you have lived.
With increasing globalisation, younger people or people who live in urban areas are embracing the concept of individual birthdays. It isn’t unusual in Vietnam to be asked your age – something that we often shy away from in the West – because it determines how you should be addressed – for example, chị for a woman older than you or em for a woman who is younger.
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