Etiquette & superstition: birthdays

My father was an engineer and my mother was a schoolteacher, and they really liked making and sticking to plans. Their plan was to have two children, born four years apart. Preferably the boy first. My brother’s birthday is four years and six days ahead of mine. They screwed that one up by six days, I guess.

ETIQUETTE: Wow, this is one I completely missed until now. It seems obvious, but I just never thought of it. Apparently it used to be considered terrible to throw yourself a birthday party as an adult. The worst. So gauche. So “look at me and tell me I’m wonderful.” Miss Manners is still not in favor of it. I have to admit that I am a bit of a “look at me and tell me I’m wonderful” sort of person at times and have thrown myself a ton of birthday parties. I’m so embarrassed.

But the good thing is the etiquette monsters have changed their mind about this one, even Miss Manners (albeit grudgingly), and it’s now all right to throw your own birthday, provided that you make it clear that no gifts are expected. If you are throwing your own birthday party at a restaurant, don’t expect your friends to pay for your meal; making people pay for not only their own refreshments but your own is not good host behavior.

And be careful with the phrasing of your invitation if you’re not prepared to pay for everyone’s meal. The Uncommon Courtesy folks suggest something along the lines of “I’m celebrating at xxxx restaurant and would love to see you if you could make it” rather than “please join me for dinner…”. Gauge this wording according to your friends’ comfort and perspicacity level. You can do it! You’re all grown up now!

SUPERSTITION: If you’re Russian or German, it’s bad luck to wish someone a happy birthday early. In China, it’s bad luck to wish someone a happy birthday late. Cross-time zone birthday wishes can be difficult sometimes.

Certain birthdays in general are also not great in China. Forget about the 30th, 40th, and 60th birthday. Ignore them. They’re dead to you. For a woman’s 33rd birthday, she needs to prepare for it by buying a piece of meat, hiding it behind the kitchen door, chopping it up 33 times*, and throwing the meat away. That’s the only way to get rid of the evil spirits associated with the number. When she turns 66, she has to find a female relative to do the meat chopping. Sixty-six times for this birthday. Phew. I don’t want to know what happens at 99.

Photo from the Wilton Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating. It really is a treasure trove, this book.
*I have tried and tried to find out if she needs to be behind the door while chopping the meat, but have not been successful in finding an answer.



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