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  • Dan Albert S. de Padua

Why Celebrate Birthdays?

Today is my birthday.

Thanks to the band Parokya ni Edgar, I can say I’m pogi years old. Hahaha. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by my age. In fact, just the other day, when a Ticketworld cashier asked me for my senior citizen card, I proudly announced that I was then only 55. It’s just that I don’t see any good reason to count the years.

I didn’t think I would make it past 50. My big plan was to exhibit great potential, then die young—cut down well before my prime by an assassin’s bullet or by an undeserved illness. Biographers would bewail my “unfinished life” and hail me as a hero, qualified to be buried anywhere, despite my lack of real accomplishments. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for that plan has long passed. Now the only thing I can hope for is a lifetime achievement award, and, sadly, that would require a lifetime of achievement.

As it is, I am haunted by the choices and compromises of my youth and middle age. I wonder about countless what-if questions, down to the absurd: What if had turned left on that day instead of right? It feels as if I have wasted my life running in other people’s rat races, always coming in second or third. If every year is just another trip around the sun and every birthday, merely a celebration of unfulfilled and unfulfillable promise, what does it matter that this is the how-many-eth (pang-ilan) in a string of unremarkable days?

Judging from the number of Google results I got—104 million—a large number of people have asked why we should celebrate birthdays; and answers have been ventured by a similarly large number of people who can be grouped into three main categories.

First, there are the sappy sentimentalists who believe we should mark our birthdays to celebrate our existence or to give thanks, not for aging, but for surviving another year. I fully agree that we should throw a grand party for a baby’s first birthday. It’s a great miracle to bring another life into existence, and it is a spectacularly big deal that the baby is still alive after one year in the hands of inexperienced parents who carried it so awkwardly it’s amazing its neck was not broken; or experienced, even jaded parents who let the baby roll off the bed and fall to the floor; or doting grandparents who smothered the baby with bacteria-laden, virus-carrying kisses. I can also agree that after age 100, or maybe 90, each additional year of life deserves a celebration. But for those of us who are no longer kids and not yet nonagenarians, consuming large amounts of food and alcohol to honor our having survived another year of consuming large amounts of food and alcohol just seems a little tedious.

Then, we have the cynics who argue that birthday celebrations are capitalist ploys meant to fool people into buying more things or a device of labor to inveigle employers to grant another day off from work. More specifically, they say birthdays were started by bakers who wanted to sell more cakes! I can’t believe that these are the same bakers who put 13 rolls instead of 12 into a baker’s dozen. In any case, I will only celebrate my birthday with cake if a Binay becomes president and the cake is given to me for free.

Finally, a good number of historians explain the origins of birthday celebrations as if to say that if we know our history, we are condemned to repeat it. Egyptian kings, they say, celebrated the anniversaries of their coronation day, that is, the day of their birth as a god. Ancient Roman men celebrated birthdays, but women, who had no rights in Roman law, did not. They also point to two direct references to birthday celebrations in the Bible. In Genesis, the Pharaoh of Egypt gave a feast for all his officials on his birthday. But then the story ends with the Pharaoh executing his chief baker. (I’m beginning to understand why bakers are confused.) Centuries later Herod also had a party with dancing, no less, for his birthday. This party, however, resulted in the beheading of John the Baptist.

So there. No counting the years. No celebrations. And no birthday greetings as well. Saying “Happy Birthday!” has become literally so cheap. You used to have make the effort to see the birthday celebrant in person in order to greet him or at least spend 30 centavos to make a phone call or a few pesos to send a card or telegram. Even text messages cost a peso not too long ago. If your only interaction with the birthday boy or girl is a standard greeting tapped out on a keyboard and sent out through Facebook or Viber absolutely free of charge, isn’t a relationship nurtured over long distances and maintained in silence profoundly more meaningful? I think so.

And I am so full of shit.

Today is my birthday. It has been a 56-year theme park ride, and I’m happy to still be on it, not dead and buried anywhere. I’m going to celebrate it with family flying in from abroad. Today I can say and do—and write—whatever I want and somehow be forgiven. I can even admit that although I do not greet a lot of people on their birthdays, I am thrilled when people greet me. Kindly look beyond my curmudgeonly behavior and send me good wishes. I would also love some cake. Better yet, crispy pata. Woohoo! Happy birthday to me!


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