Updated: Apr 25, 2019
Birthdays are a special time to celebrate. If you’re living and breathing, odds are you’ve celebrated a few of your own. I was at a friend’s birthday party recently. It was a simple affair at his place. We played board games while he barbequed trays of beautiful meat. Everyone shared about the birthday boy and how we knew him. Among 30-somethings, that birthday was uncommonly personal and intimate. It occurred to me that celebrating a birthday can mean different things at different ages.
CAKEFUL OF CANDLES
I remember my birthdays as a child. We celebrated it at home or my grandparents’ place. My uncles and aunties would be there too. There was always good makan and a cakeful of candles. They’d shake my hand, wish me ‘happy birthday’, and congratulate me on becoming a young man. The spotlight was on me! I did whatever my heart desired and everyone came along for the ride. If I wanted more of something (second helpings of nasi lemak with extra sambal), an adult would get it for me. If I wanted to watch cartoons (the 80s were full of memorable ones), I could switch channels and hog the tele without recrimination. If I wanted to play with my toys (MASK!), an adult would sit with me and play the bad guys. As a child, it felt good to be at the centre of everyone’s attention.
Celebrating birthdays as an adult is more intentional. They are smaller affairs with different groups of people. Something mysterious happens in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Birthday celebrations may still be about what you want, but what you want now includes the happiness and well-being of others dear to you.
One birthday in my 20s, I was back in Singapore for the holidays after being overseas and wanted to see friends I missed. I invited them over for a meal and decided to cook. It’s a decision I made without understanding the concept of clean-up. When my first guest arrived, reality hit, and I knew that the day would be long and tiring. I snatched a few bites and conversations but most of that birthday was spent doing dishes or clearing trash bags. Someone bought me a cake, a small one with just one candle. I loved it. That day came with a cost, and I was happy to pay the price for it. I was worried most of the day and tired at the end of it. But I had a smile on my face. I was glad to see my friends and happy they got a chance to catch up with one another too.
As an adult, celebrating birthdays isn’t just about me anymore, or even about birthdays in general. It’s about stepping outside of myself, appreciating the years that I’ve lived, and celebrating the people that made those years meaningful. That was probably what drove me to cook and host that birthday. Will there be enough food? Is there enough cutlery for everyone? Is the air conditioner cool enough? While I wanted to enjoy my celebration, I also wished for my guests to have a good experience gathering with one another.
When adulthood slowly slips into old age, and one is reminded of our mortality, I wonder if birthday celebrations take on a new layer of meaning like ‘congratulations, we’ve survived another year together!’ I’m still a few decades away from those, but I’ve celebrated birthdays with people who’ve lived very long lives. The tone of such birthdays is usually thoughtful, even philosophical.
My grandaunt had her birthday celebrated in a hotel restaurant. She was in her 80s but very aware, sociable, and mobile. As an observer, I found it curious how disinterested she was in the stuff going on around her. I mean, she mingled with her relatives and chatted with them, but when she wasn’t engaged in a conversation, she looked almost unimpressed, as if she didn’t take things too seriously and would have been just as happy celebrating at home. She might have been tired, or sick, or bored. But I suspect it’s something more.
I try to imagine how I would feel - how any of us would feel - celebrating a birthday in old age. I wouldn’t mind not having cake or presents. Part of me would feel grateful. Another part would be grappling, not in the sense of wrestling with uncertainty but desiring to unpack a mystery. Has my life been meaningful or made a difference to anyone? What do all my experiences add up to, or mean? There’s no way to tabulate a score for this. Maybe a gut-check might help.
Birthdays mean different things at different ages. They have this special ability to point backwards or forwards in time, or towards different people - ourselves, our loved ones, or humanity at large. The context changes as we grow older but we have the power to decide what our birthday celebrations will point at or focus on. Perhaps before you casually attend the next birthday celebration, whether your own or someone else’s, consider the last memorable birthday you celebrated. What made that celebration special? You can choose to celebrate in a way that best honours who you want to be.