As I recall my childhood, the most unforgettable birthday memory I have is of a bowl of `mee sua` with pork and a hard-boiled egg, which were just for me. This was a very special treat back in the 60s, when standards of living were not high. My maternal grandmother and mother would specially proclaim their wishes that I would grow up quickly and be obedient. Another memory I have is of the birthday party I had when I was in primary six. We had just moved into a new house and my mother threw me a party complete with a cake and fruits. My classmates were also invited. It was reminiscent of those scenes from the Cantonese films of the 60s, which depicted a rich kid celebrating her birthday. Although my family was deeply traditional and not too affluent, my mother had a desire to achieve for me what she perceived as a modern way of life. That birthday party was probably a manifestation of that desire.
In today's kindergartens, it is commonplace to find a Snow White or dinosaur cake at a child's birthday celebration. On top of this, the birthday child will also distribute goodie bags to her friends. Needless to say, such a birthday celebration brings much joy to the children. Whenever a child celebrates her birthday, her friends look forward to receiving goodie bags. The birthday child harbours a deep conviction that these goodie bags are a must-have for her friends. Although this has become a trend as Singaporean society becomes increasingly affluent and modernised, there are parents who do not subscribe to such a form of birthday celebration. These parents may then be at a loss when their birthday child throws a tantrum when she realises that there would be no goodie bags for her friends.
What exactly do birthdays mean to adults and children? No matter the difference in ethnicity, the birth of a new life is perceived to be a blessing. Prayers, songs and gifts are but some methods of celebrating the joyous ocassion. In the past when living and sanitary standards were more primitive, it was too painfully common for lives to be born only to be lost to disease and infection. Hence, being able to safely attain one year of age was truly a cause for celebration. Although the various ethnic groups have different ways of celebrating a child's first birthday, the meaning behind the celebration is the same. However, not all ethnic groups would celebrate every year of a child's life. Some would only celebrate the third, fifth and seventh birthdays of a child. The origin and manner of celebrating birthdays have very much to do with the ability and living standards of an ethnic group. Its perspective and beliefs about life play a part as well.
With the intermingling of various cultures, change has been forced on the diverse traditional ways of celebrating one's birthday. The worldwide popularity of the birthday cake and the birthday song are evidences of this change. Birthday customs evolve with time, and it would be informative to re-examine the meaning behind celebrating a child's birthday, in the context of our modern lives.
In an affluent society where families produce fewer children than before, life seems to revolve around the children. The child is pampered and showered with much love, and goes on to become a self-centered individual. Some children are even little tyrants, who are rude and overbearing towards their loved-ones. However, no child is born this way. This is rather the result of the environment in which the child grows up. The adults have failed in their duty to use daily life-experiences to inculcate virtues in the child. Birthdays, being very much a child's life-experience is a good material to help adults guide children in thinking about the meaning of their lives and their relationships with others.
In Brazil, the birthday child shows appreciation to her parents by offering them the first slice of the birthday cake. In one of our local preschools, a teacher led her students in a discussion about celebrating birthdays without the customary creamy cakes and goodie bags. Some children felt that growing one year older means they could now help perform some simple household chores. To them, taking on such responsibilities meant that they had grown up. There were also birthday children who cooked `mee sua` for everyone in class. Ingredients used had special meaning, for instance, the lettuce signified vitality. The birthday child would then pack some `mee sua` home to show how much she appreciates the love and care from her family. Parents and child came together to discuss the food items for the birthday celebration. Lighting birthday candles on rolls of sushi and making vegetable rolls with parents and peers were but some of the examples.
There may be some who do not agree with going to such lengths to celebrate a child's birthday. It will be enough to just follow the custom of singing the birthday song before blowing out the candles on the cake. However, customs are meant for sending messages across or to proliferate a certain value. A Teochew elder once told me that in his village, it was customary for a bride to cook in the kitchen and feed the pigs in the sty, when she first entered her husband's household. This was to stress to the bride her place in the family. After this elder migrated to urban Singapore and got married himself, this wedding custom had all but disappeared. Does this not tell us that customs can be changed? In order for our children to fully understand their families' contribution to their growth, and in turn learn to treasure all that their loved-ones have done for them, can we not re-examine birthday customs and give them new meanings? I hope that more parents and children will inject new meanings into birthday celebrations.