When we’re the birthday person, having people sing Happy Birthday to us is usually an awkward affair. No matter what language the song is sung to us in, we struggle to compose ourselves during the tune: do we stare at the cake with candles, then at the singing well-wishers, and then stare at the cake again?
It’s my birthday next week and I’m quite certain I won’t have to deal with Happy Birthday being sung to me. I’m not big on celebrating birthdays and have never thrown myself a birthday party; this year is no exception. 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 of course, that song.
When Happy Birthday is sung to us, we can be respectful, polite and show our 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 us, be it store bought or homemade. The least we can do is sit and stare at the candles until the song is over.
A few years ago on my birthday, I was sitting in my room writing an essay for uni and my mum screamed at me to come to the kitchen. I did and turns out she bought a $30 cake without my knowledge and had put it on the table. She then hassled me to light the candles on the cake so she and my brother could sing the song and go to sleep. Which I did, because it was quite a thoughtful, hard-earned, monetary gesture.
We can be sporting and join in the fun when Happy Birthday is sung to us. Maybe smile and grin, hamming it up for the smartphone cameras. Or sing along, neither of which I’ve seen anyone I know do probably because none of us wants to come across as a narcissist.
Likewise we can have a good sense of humour and show our funny side as some have suggested: blow out the candles mid-song or conduct those singing Happy Birthday to us à la an orchestra. After all, Happy Birthday is a feel good song in generally sung in C major, which is probably why when we sing it we often think about a good time and not the debate going around who the copyright of the birthday song belongs to.
On the other hand, we can be honest and show our true feelings when people sing us Happy Birthday. If we’re delighted, we might laugh the whole way through. If we’re embarrassed, we can cover our face with our hands. Once when I was a kid, my parents threw me a birthday party in Australia and invited my friends from school. During the birthday song, I remember staring at the cake with my mouth hanging open…and my classmates trailing off singing the last line.
Countless birthday traditions across the world don’t revolve around singing this birthday song. As I wrote last year about celebrating birthdays, in Chinese culture it’s auspicious to eat noodles on birthdays, symbolising 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 the older we get, the more low-key our birthday celebrations. A simple, nice meal to mark the occasion. Maybe a day trip to somewhere. No need a song and smoky, fiery candle fanfare. The other day I looked in the mirror and spied lines under my eyes. The older we get, the more we realise the colour of our hair fades to white permanently, the slower our legs move when climbing a hill, the more forgetful we may be – physical and mental limitations. And no birthday song will change any of that. The older we get, the more we realise life is indeed a gift.
Our birthday is the anniversary of the time we first opened our eyes in this world. The anniversary of the time we took our first breath. The anniversary of the time we first used our 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. Like thankful for a roof over my head. Someone putting dinner on the table when I get home from work. Hurtling to 6-figure views on this multicultural blog and hearing how readers go away learning something reading it…or how each of us has it in us to make a difference to others around us.
At the end of the day, when people sing us Happy Birthday, often they are being encouraging. They sing it off-key for us even when they know they can’t sing. They make the effort to repeat an uplifting phrase over and over again. For a moment, they are trying to make us feel like we have a part to play in this world.
The least we can do, really, is say, “Thanks”.
What do you do when people sing Happy Birthday to you?