News and Tribune

June 14, 2013

STAWAR: it’s your birthday

By TERRY STAWAR
Local columnist

Last week, we kicked off the summer birthday season with a trip to an indoor water park in Cincinnati to celebrate our middle granddaughter’s 10th birthday. 

Birthdays are taken pretty seriously in our family and the summer is cram-packed with them. 

When our daughter was in kindergarten, she came home from school on her birthday still wearing her party hat. She insisted on keeping it on and wouldn’t take it off for the rest of the day. She sought the full measure from her birthday and wanted everyone else to know, without question, that she was “the birthday girl.”

My wife Diane has always thought that your birthday privileges should extend beyond your actual birthday, at least until the next family member’s special day. She also introduced the idea of a “fun day” in our family, in lieu of a formal birthday party, in which the birthday child gets to pick whatever they want to do that day.

I always assumed that most birthdays take place during the summer. Some demographers believe that women, especially teachers, may plan this in order to coincide with summer vacations. From an evolutionary perspective, it also makes sense to give birth when weather conditions are milder. 

 Turns out that I’m slightly off, and most birthdays in America fall between July and early October. Depending on the data used, the months of August and September usually come out on top. 

One study by Harvard economist Amitabh Chandra, identifies Sept. 16 as the most common birthday in America. ABC news and several other sources, however, cite AnyBirthday.com’s survey, which designates Oct. 5 as America’s most popular birthday. The website says that more than 960,000 people have this birthday, compared to the 750,000 on an average day. October 5 also has the distinction of falling precisely nine months (274 days) from New Year’s Eve. 

Julie Andrews, Kate Winslet, the late Bernie Mac and Nicky Hilton all share Oct. 5 birthdays. 

The least common American birthday falls on Leap Day, Feb. 29. When the number of Leap Day birthdays is multiplied by four, however, the result falls within the average range. 

Christmas Day is the next least frequent birthday. While you often hear complaints by people maintaining that their birthdays were spoiled by being too close to Christmas, very few people are actually born on Christmas Day. Admittedly, getting birthday presents wrapped in holiday paper, “Merry Birthday” cards and the notorious “twofer” — one gift for both occasions, sounds like a raw deal. 

While some women, consciously or unconsciously, may be able to delay the onset of labor, the low numbers of births on holidays may also be due to how hospitals and doctors arrange their schedules. 

According to a study by the Yale School of Public Health, positive and negative associations with specific holidays may also influence birthrates. This study shows a significant decrease in regular and cesarean births on Halloween, compared to the number of births one week before and one week after the holiday. On Valentine’s Day, however, there is a small but noticeable increase in regular births and an even larger increase in cesareans. 

The typical American birthday follows a fairly rigidly defined social script. Among the standard elements are: The birthday party or family celebration with ice cream and cake; singing the Happy Birthday song; blowing out the candles on the cake; making a birthday wish (but keeping it secret); getting a birthday spanking (one for each year, one to grow on, and a pinch to grow an inch); and receiving gifts and birthday cards. “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language. It comes from a children’s song written and composed by Louisville sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893. 

In my childhood, birthday parties were homemade events and usually involve ice cream cups with wooden spoons and games like musical chairs and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. When our children were growing up, Showtime Pizza and Chucky E. Cheese were the popular places to celebrate birthdays. Chuck E. Cheese is an anthropomorphic rat, although in his latest incarnation he looks less ratty and more resembles a cartoon mouse. 

Our middle son was terrified by the keyboard-playing gorilla featured at Showtime Pizza. We convinced him that that the gorilla was just a Muppet (or Mup, as he called them). As for me, I always thought that gorilla was way too realistic for comfort and I had made a mental note that if it ever stood up, I was out of there. 

 Birthdays also figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition. While Jesus’ nativity was marked by gifts from the Wise Men, it is unclear whether this was a belated birthday celebration or the presentation of tributes. Two birthday parties mentioned in the Bible start out celebratory, but end up rather grisly. In the Old Testament, the Pharaoh, in the time of Joseph, ordered a feast on his birthday, inviting his servants. This all sounds rather pleasant, but the climax of the celebration was the execution of the Pharaoh’s chief baker. 

Birthday parties fared little better in the New Testament. King Herod invited all the Galilean upper crust to his birthday party which featured dancing girls. Tragically, it ended up with John the Baptist’s beheading. You can understand why some folks are still wary of birthdays.

Certain birthdays are also incorporated into legal and religious systems to mark an individual’s “coming of age.” Depending on the cultural, legal or religious practices involved, people often assumed particular rights and responsibilities on specified birthdays. 

This includes such things as being able to be conscripted or to enlist in the military, to marry without parental consent, to vote, to assume certain elected or appointed offices, to legally consume alcohol and tobacco products, to gamble, to obtain a driver’s license, to become an official member of a congregation or to be tried as an adult. 

As people get older, birthdays are not all ice cream and cake. According to one Swiss study, people are more likely to die on their birthdays than any other day of the year. Epidemiologist Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross from the University of Zurich found that men and women are 14 percent more likely to die on their birthday. This rises to 18 percent for people over 60. Besides deaths from natural causes, suicides are 35 percent higher on birthdays and fatal accidents rose by almost 29 percent. 

Birthdays may add more stress and alcohol use and the “birthday blues” may be contributing factors. Some scientists believe there is a “death postponement” phenomena, in which people with failing health, hang on long enough to reach some milestone like a certain holiday or special occasion. 

University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley and her colleagues reported on how young children perceive birthdays. They told a sample of youngsters about three 2-year olds who were about to celebrate their birthdays. The first child had a party on his birthday. The next child was prevented from having a party. The third child had two parties. 

The youngsters were then asked how old each child would be. Woolley says, “a significant number of children between the ages of 3 and 5 believed that the birthday party itself actually causes aging.” This charming belief — that confuses correlation with causality — is typical of what psychologists called “preoperational thinking.”

Around the age of 7, most children move from preoperational thought to “concrete operations.” At that point, thinking becomes less magical and they understand that it’s not the party that causes aging. 

The next family birthday happens to be mine — June 20. I just hope I don’t get a “three-fer” — that’s a single present that counts for my birthday, Father’s Day as well as the midsummer Solstice. 

  

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring.