I love birthdays: mine, other people's... I'm not picky. I love the idea that everyone gets one day a year to be a prince or princess, to have his/her own way, to be with friends and family, to be the center of the universe. Sometimes there are gifts, given and received, but that's not always the best part. The best part is knowing that for one day, people care enough to take time out of their busy day to honor someone else- a practice that is becoming more of a rarity in today's fast-paced society, where cards and calls are replaced by quick Facebook posts and texts.
Birthdays in my family are particularly important because so many of my family members have birthdays so close to holidays that it becomes a conscious effort to honor them. My aunt's birthday is December 26th; my cousin Halloween. My daughter decided she wanted to show up on Easter, so she only occasionally has to share her special day. I myself was supposed to be a Christmas baby; I turned up late enough to miss the holiday, but early enough in January to still get the "combined" Christmas and birthday gifts. So what do we do with all of this holiday/birthday madness? We make birthdays a big deal. No Christmas wrap for my aunt; no Halloween/ birthday parties for my cousin. Everyone gets a special day just one's own.
Aside from just the honor of having one's birthday noted as special, our birthdays are milestones. First birthday. Eleventh. Thirteenth. Sixteenth. Eighteenth. Twenty-first. After that, we start counting in decades: thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, and so on. Many of these milestones have important traditions that go along with them, some cultural, some familial. From Quinceneras to driving lessons to binge drinking with friends and "over the hill" parties, birthdays become more than numbers: they are signs that we have become part of society, rites of passage that mark the transitions between each phase of our life.
Because I love birthdays so much, I mourn the absence of them in fiction. Sometimes birthdays and celebrations are important to the story. In fairy tales, for example, the sixteenth birthday is where all the magic happens (usually due to a curse at that all-important christening). But a majority of the time, they go unacknowleged completely. I totally get it that Frodo and Sam really couldn't stop for a cupcake in the middle of Mordor. But shouldn't there be some mention of birthdays, if nothing more than a way to mark the time?
When I was writing my second novel, The Northern Queen, not knowing Ki'leah's birthday became a problem for me. She was nineteen at the start of Song; at the beginning of Queen, I had to figure out exactly how old she was. And had she had a birthday during the first novel? Surprisingly, this suddenly mattered. In my current novel, the main character's age and birthday are imperative to the plot. But what about the other characters? It's sort of funny that as much as I and my family honor birthdays, even I have sort of dropped the ball with them in my fiction.
And therein lies the problem. Because of the social and cultural implications of birthdays, they can be important to the world building as well as to our understanding of the individual character. At what age do characters get married? Become warriors? Die? What happens to the elderly (often absent from fiction entirely)? How do people celebrate? Quiet celebrations or big blowout parties? I can't think of many mentions of birthdays used in this way, and I think I'd really love to see more of them.
So help me out, here: where have you seen them used effectively as world-building, plot, or even just casual mention? How do (or could) birthdays change your experience of reading or writing novels?