Sunday, January 20, 2013

Happy Birthday!

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?

Kim Vandervort


Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, the combination Birthday/holiday thing. Two of my kids were born during the winter holidays (son on 12/16, daughter on 12/27)and one of them was born just after Halloween (daughter on11/4.) Even my other son's birthday is holiday-impinged, being a President's Day baby (2/19.) For the Halloweenie and President's Day kids, it wasn't so much of a problem. For the Christmas babies--whew! For many years, we celebrated their birthdays quietly with the family, then did the big birthday parties at their 1/2 birthdays in June. It just always seemed unfair to me that a kid waits all year for two things--birthday and Christmas--and for my two, it was all over in a matter of a week.

Anyway, you make an excellent point, and it's one I've thought about a lot. I always know my characters' birthdays, but I don't think they've ever made it into the story. Celebrating a birthday is, to me, such a modern thing, or a royal thing. Birthdays weren't typically celebrated in the lower classes, where most of my characters typically live. That's what I get for writing about the peasantry instead of royalty. Hmmm...and now I'm wondering if I shouldn't add a little something into BTG at the very end. Oh...this is giving me such a good idea!!! I'll email you about it instead of putting it in here.
See what you've done!?

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I honestly can't think of a story in fantasy where a birthday event played a significant role, or even got a casual mention for that matter. This may be an artifact of birthday celebrations being a relatively recent invention, at least in our culture.

When building Eolyn's world, I invented a culture where people do not really bother to remember the day on which they were born. The season, however, is important. Eolyn, for example, was born in the spring. People's ages, then, are not measured by "years from date of birth" but by the "number of summers" one has lived. (So Eolyn was already one summer old within a few months after her birth.)

It seems to me that for some cultures, name days were more important than birthdays. It's an interesting topic, the origin of our emphasis on birthdays; one I haven't put a lot of thought into but would like to know more about.

Terri-Lynne said...

The only birthday parties I can think of are Alice's UNbirthday, and Bilbo's birthday party--but we ALWAYS seem to end up in Tolkien around here, so I hesitated to mention the latter. :)

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I notice you said; 'I honestly can't think of a story in fantasy where a birthday event played a significant role, or even got a casual mention for that matter'

And of course you must have deliberately chosen to omit mention of ch.1 of LotR 'A Long-expected Party' wherein not only do two characters celebrate significant birthdays (111 for Bilbo, 33 for Frodo) but also a critical and wholly unique event (the passing of the Ring by free will from one person to another) occurs.

I'd also note that Frodo's birthday is Sept 21st and Frodo leaves the Shire shortly after his 50th birthday and the Ring is destroyed on the 25th March of the following year, hence no need for birthday mentions in the bulk of the story. However Frodo and Bilbo do celebrate their birthdays at Rivendell on their return there, and it is on Frodo's 53rd birtthday that he and Bilbo set out for the Grey Havens.

Once again Tolkien is way ahead . . .

Of course one may question whether Merry, Pippin and Sam's birthdays should not be mentioned, but it's not unlikely that none of them fell withing the critical Sept-March period of TA 3018-19. As for the other characters, birthdays would be meaningless to the immortal elves and likely not publically acknowledged by the secretive dwarves. That really only leaves Men and as LotR deals with the great and good amongst Men, it would seem likely that they would have had more important things on their minds than a day that we have no evidence that held cultural significance for the Sons of Eorl or the Numenoreans.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hello Pongo,

Yes, Terri had called me out on Bilbo's birthday, too. Funny I didn't remember that, but I've lived with a psychologist long enough to know that the really important lapses always have a subconscious motivation. I suspect my subsconscious motivation was to smoke you out, since we hadn't heard from you in a while. So welcome back. You've been missed. ;)

I have to admit, Bilbo's birthday didn't have a big impact on me as a reader. By the time the LotR movies came out, I no longer remembered that it all started with Bilbo's (and Frodo's) birthday; though I will say the party was one of my favorite scenes from that first movie.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

And of course there's the fact that Gollum, like Frodo, comes into possession of the ring on his birthday.

Actually though Bilbo's voluntary relinquishing of the ring is unprecendented at that point, not unique. Sam later gives the ring back to Frodo after rescuing him from the tower of Cirith Ungol (pedants may point out that Gandalf also handles the ring at one point without keeping it but he's never actually in possession of it in the proper sense).

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo-- I knew the omission of Bilbo's birthday would smoke you out! Woohoo! :)

And I'd forgotten just how significant--in a small but profound way--birthdays were in LOTR.

I think it's about time to read the series again. I try to do so every five years or so. I'm way overdue.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Birthdays, at least in the west, are basically Roman in origin, I think. I'm not sure if the ancient Greeks bothered much with birthdays, but the Romans did until pesky Christianity came along and spoiled all the fun. I've also no idea whether Celtic or early Germanic types celebrated birthdays in pagan times, they may have done (but naturally would have done so in a way less splendidly exessive than the Romans . . .).

It's possible that the general lack of birthdays in fantasy is linked to their general unimportance in pre-modern Christian societies (save occasionally amongst the nobility who tended of course to try and ape Roman customs when they could get away with it), given much fantasy has essentially medieval roots. Mind you, I'd think that an entirely unconscious reason for the omission of birthdays.

Terri-Lynne said...

I just thought of another book in which birthdays play a significant role--The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Every birthday is significant, and celebrated as a community. Each birthday has a traditional gift. The actual DATE one is born doesn't matter. As long as one is born in that year, even if the day before the year changes, they're a One, or a Five or a Ninety...though no one lives until ninety. And that's all the spoilery I'll add. :)