Before the 19th century, dates of birth were not officially noted, although baptisms occasionally were. England began keeping parish records of births, deaths and marriages in 1538 but this wasn’t implemented for the entire population until the Registration Act of 1836. The first British census in 1801 didn’t record age, and it wasn’t introduced as a question until 1831 – even then it wasn’t mandatory to answer. It wasn’t until the 1851 census that people had to record their precise ages.
As well as celebrating the anniversary of your birth, some countries also celebrate name days. These originated as saint days, when people named after a given saint would celebrate that saint’s feast day. Greece sets aside a Sunday for those who aren’t named after saints so they aren’t left out. The University of Helsinki publishes a calendar of Finnish and Swedish name days: today belongs to people called Perttu, Bertel and Berta. Tomorrow is for Louises and Tuesday August 27 for Ralfs.
If there are 23 people in a room there is a 50-50 chance that two of them will share a birthday. This is known as the birthday paradox, because it appears there are only 22 possible pairs and therefore a low chance of a match. In fact, because every guest could match with every other guest, there are 253 possible combinations (1+2+3+4… up to 22) and the probability of finding a successful one is 50.048 per cent.
The Queen’s actual birthday is April 21 but she celebrates her official birthday on a suitable Saturday in June (the Government chooses which one). One of the reasons is to ensure good weather for the Trooping the Colour ceremony, held to mark the monarch’s birthday since 1748. The Queen has attended all the ceremonies during her reign apart from in 1955, when the parade was cancelled due to a rail strike.
The 100 club
Celebratory messages for landmark birthdays have been sent by the monarch since 1917. They mark 100th and 105th birthdays and then each following year. The late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother received a card from the Queen for her 100th birthday – it was signed “Lilibet”. In 1917 only 24 messages were sent to celebrate 100th birthdays; in 2011, 917 cards were sent to those celebrating 105th birthdays and above. In 2009, Prince William paid a surprise visit to 109-year-old Catherine Masters after she wrote to the Queen to point out she’d been wearing the same outfit in her past five birthday cards. The design was due for a revamp – they change every five years – and Mrs Masters received a new card for her 110th birthday.
The “Happy Birthday” song originated in 1893 when teacher Mildred Hall thought of the tune. Her sister Patty added words and they christened the piece Good Morning to All. It was intended to be sung as children entered the classroom but was switched to be sung to the teacher, and became Good Morning to You. As the song grew in popularity, it was sung outside schools and became Happy Birthday to You. The song is protected under copyright until at least 2030.
Cards and presents
Britons send more than 300 million birthday cards a year. Cards that play a song when you open them use more computing power than was used to send man to the moon. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a popular 21st birthday present was to have all your teeth removed and replaced with a set of dentures – the idea was it would prevent the expense of dental treatment later in life. Shirley Temple received 135,000 presents for her eighth birthday.
According to the Julian calendar, Isaac Newton was born on December 25 and devotees hold a celebration of science on the day, called it Newtonmas or Gravmas. The symbol of Newtonmas is the apple. Some people decorate apple trees – or decorate trees with apples – and give educational gifts: books, CDs or tickets to lectures. One website says that after giving each other presents, it’s time for the most important Newtonmas tradition – procrastination. “Now that you have new sources of knowledge, it’s time to get busy not absorbing their contents. Eat a big meal, take a nap, talk with friends and family. Do anything but be productive.”