When you’re the birthday person and people sing Happy Birthday to you, it can be an awkward affair.
You might feel uncomfortable to be the centre of attention when the birthday song is sung to you. You might be horrified when people surprise you with a birthday party and burst out in song.
No matter what language the song is sung in, you might struggle to compose yourself during the tune: do you stare at the cake with candles, then stare at the singing people, and then stare at the cake again?
I’m not big on celebrating birthdays and have never thrown myself a birthday party. Each time my friends suggest they throw me a birthday bash, I insist I won’t turn up to it.
However, in the past I’ve had to put up with a few surprise birthday parties and, that song.
When Happy Birthday is sung to you, you can be respectful, polite and show your appreciation to the singers and so-called singers. After all, they’ve obviously took some trouble to show up and bring a cake with candles to you, be it store bought or homemade. The least you can do is sit and stare at the candles until the song is over.
One day on my birthday many, many years ago, I was sitting in my room writing an essay for university and my mum screamed at me to come to the kitchen. I did and turned out she bought a $30 cake without my knowledge and had put it on the table. She hassled me to light the candles on the cake so she and my brother could sing the song. Which I did, because it was quite a thoughtful, hard-earned monetary gesture.
You can be sporting and join in the fun when Happy Birthday is sung to you. Maybe smile and grin, hamming it up for the smartphone cameras. Or sing along too.
Likewise you can have a good sense of humour and show your funny side as some have suggested: blow out the candles mid-song or conduct those singing Happy Birthday to you à la an orchestra.
After all, Happy Birthday is a feel good song usually sung in C major. That’s probably why when people sing it they often think about a good time and not the debate about who the copyright of the birthday song belongs to.
On the other hand, you can be honest and show your true feelings when people sing you Happy Birthday. If you’re delighted, you can laugh the whole way through.
If you’re embarrassed, you can cover your face with your hands. Once when I was a kid in Australia, my parents threw me a birthday party and invited my friends from school. During the birthday song, I remember staring at the cake with my mouth open…and my classmates trailing off singing the last line.
Countless birthday traditions across the world don’t revolve around singing the birthday song. As I wrote last year about celebrating birthdays, in Chinese culture it’s auspicious to eat noodles on birthdays and it symbolises long life.
For some of us, birthdays are more than just about cake and song, more than just about people celebrating the occasions with us. Birthdays remind us of our culture, where we’re from and where our values lie as we partake in such traditions.
It seems for many people, the more low-key birthday celebrations are: a simple, nice meal to mark the occasion. Maybe a day trip to somewhere. No need for a song and smoky, fiery candle fanfare.
The older you get, the more you realise the colour of your hair fades to white permanently, the slower your legs move when climbing a hill, the more forgetful you may be. No birthday song will change any of that. The older you get, the more you realise life is indeed a gift.
Your birthday is the anniversary of the time you first opened your eyes in this world. The anniversary of the time you took your first breath. The anniversary of the time you first used your voice. As the adults whom we are now, those first times seem so long ago compared to how far we’ve come and what we’ve got today, things we have that we should be thankful for.
At the end of the day, when people sing you Happy Birthday, often they do so wishing you well. They sing it off-key even when they know they can’t sing. They make the effort to repeat an uplifting phrase over and over. For a moment, they are trying to make you feel like you have a part in this world.
The least you can do, really, is be thankful.
What do you do when people sing Happy Birthday to you?