I’ve always thought birthdays are a bit strange. Why celebrate the child on a birthday when really we should be celebrating the mother? It’s no easy feat for a woman to carry a child within her uterus for nine months. She must execute extreme care about her diet and her drinking/smoking/exercise habits, all while dealing with the involuntary reactions her baby induces on her body. Still, I guess we like to have an occasion to celebrate and enjoy the gift of such labor (ha.) with by surrounding that bundle of joy with friends and family.
Across the world, you can find various traditions used to celebrate birthdays, but in the 21st century, I’ve found that a lot of these traditions are starting to look the same (e.g. blow out cakes on a candle and sing). However, the way different cultures celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed away is often quite distinctive. Examples of death celebrations include the mummification deceased family members, an annual celebration and cleaning of family graves (day of the dead), and somber rituals to represent different steps during the passage to the afterlife (Taoist traditions).
My mother is one of eight children. There were so many nieces and nephews it was hard to remember everyone’s birthdays. When one of my younger brothers was born just 10 days after I turned four years old, our parents held a joint birthday for us. The joint birthday parties continued well into my childhood. Quite efficient, don’t you think?
As I’ve aged, birthdays have taken on a different meaning. Birthdays and death days are a particularly intertwined concept for me. Four years ago, my uncle started a battle against Hepatitis C and liver cancer. He died on my 22nd birthday. It is now very difficult for my large extended family to forget my birthday. On occasions where the families gather around my uncle’s tombstone in remembrance, I will sometimes receive birthday wishes from a cousin or aunt. I still haven’t gotten over the awkwardness this causes me.
In my family, celebrations of the deceased follow the loose cultural/Taoist traditions of my grandparents. This includes a strong belief in the afterlife as a realm where ancestors watch over living relatives with benevolence and wisdom. My parents aren’t typically religious but my mother believes my uncle died on my birthday for a reason and that he cast a protective charm over me when he died.
I don’t know if I believe that particular aspect of Taoism, but I am certain my uncle will have an answer for me in the afterlife.