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The Way It Was: All about birthdays, birthday traditions and gifts to celebrate life

by John Straka Published: January 22, 2014 12:00 AM
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From what I remember from many years ago, there are (or were) places in our rapidly changing world where the day a baby is born is counted as that child's first birthday. One year later, when we would say the child is now 1-year-old, those people celebrate that child's second birthday.

In the horse racing world, all racehorses have a birthday on the first day of January. A horse born in January becomes 1-year-old on the first of the following January. One born in December becomes a year old less than a month later. Two horses, both officially the same age, may actually be almost one year apart in age.

The traditional song "Happy Birthday" is a must for every birthday party. Sometimes the honoree is known by several names, and when the singing comes to the part where it says "Happy birthday dear ..." those who are singing may use different words such as James, Jimmy, Junior, Daddy or some kind of nickname.

Some people, like Jack Benny, do not observe a new birthday every year. They just celebrate the same one over and over. Benny was famous for being 39 year after year. Some celebrate the anniversary of a particular birthday. If I did that, I would have recently celebrated the 46th anniversary of my 50th birthday.

It used to be that a 21st birthday marked the person as an adult. Now the passage from childhood to adulthood takes place at age 18. Personally, I think that's too early. On the other hand, I believe juveniles old enough to commit murder, should be considered old enough to suffer the consequences.

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Marie Barone, from the TV show "Everybody Loves Raymond," once said that a woman should add one inch to the length of her skirt for every birthday after 40. Her husband, Frank, said if that's so, then Marie should be dragging around a Persian rug. Have you ever known anyone born the same day as you were? One of my relatives and I were born just 10 days apart. Although I never met him, the actor Ossie Davis and I were born on the same day.

Celebrations often include greeting cards. Several volumes of the Time-Life book series "This Fabulous Century" have photographs of old-time greeting cards or postcards, some quite elaborate and fancy, others just looking quaint and outdated.

A birthday card feels somehow more personal and exciting for the person receiving it than a card for a holiday, like Christmas. It might read "Today's Your Birthday!" Birthday cards can be humorous, naughty or nice. There are Email cards, money cards or cards that play music when you open them. The term "gift card" was unknown years ago.

Birthday parties and other celebrations also often include gifts. My earliest memory of a gift came when I was about 12. My parents gave me an Erector Set. I spent many hours building things such as bridges, towers, and geometric shapes. Years later, I made a crude burglar alarm, and on another occasion, a device like a seismograph, to record when I tossed and turned in my sleep.

Later in life, I received a certificate for a flying lesson as a gift. I made an appointment and expected a great big advertising pitch to get me to sign up for thousands of dollars worth of lessons. I was surprised when it was nothing like that at all. I actually was given the opportunity to fly the aircraft.

I flew it from our lakefront airport out to Maple Heights and over my house. It was so much fun, I went back two more times and learned how to do various turns and climbs. The most thrilling part was when the pilot pointed the nose of the plane up until the thing stalled and began to just fall out of the sky. It's hard to describe how that feels when you're heading straight down and then level out.

Sometimes it's very difficult to select an appropriate gift for someone. The wrong gift can be a mistake. I would be very careful about giving a pet or a plant or something that needs care. You don't want to give a sugary cake to a diabetic or a puppy to someone allergic to pet hair.

The best birthday gifts are those celebrated with friends and relatives. A special meal, at home or in a restaurant, shared with people who care, is hard to beat when it comes to birthday gifts.

The most precious gift of all is the gift of life. Every year, every day, every minute, are all gifts. The more we get, the more we want. It makes me feel bad when I hear of people who waste their time doing things that shorten their lives.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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