It’s fine to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ within the confines of home or the office but to use it on screen or in a public performance, you have to fork out money to the Warner Music group. A ditty converted from ‘Good Morning to All’ has provided revenue since 1935 and the copyright will remain in force till 2016 in the European Union and 2030 in the US. Somehow, it seems odd that a song that is the most widely recognised in the English Language still needs a license. But the tradition of using cakes dates back to ancient Rome in keeping with the advancement of baking. And candles on the cake can be traced to 18th century Germany along with the singing of birthday songs. But those songs haven’t made it to the present.
Birthday cards began to take off in the 1800s with postal services growing in popularity and cards being exchanged on important occasions. That continued until the end of the 20th century, a prize run of almost 200 years. The net took over as personalized and multimedia cards got to be sent through email. But the brick and mortar greeting cards industry in the US is still a big business with over 7 billion cards sold every year. There’s also a fair amount of torment delivered to young people who are hoisted in the air by their friends holding their arms and legs and giving them ‘birthday bumps’ equal to the number of years they have completed. While it initially started off to ward off evil, it’s now just about fun with a little pain.
But why are birthdays celebrated at all? After all, it just marks the passing of a year. In some ways, it has to do with the human fascination for patterns. The establishment of the calendar brought about recurrence and periodicity. And births marked an important point of the continuance of a family. The wealthy naturally celebrated the annual recurrence and the growing of their progeny. It was a way to establish their position at the top of the social order. Something that continues to this date. The wealthy throw lavish parties for kids too young to understand and bewildered by the presence of innumerable guests who pinch their cheeks and tell them how cute they look – even if they don’t. But the tying up of birthdays, their astrological significance and its influence on life in the future has not changed at all. Linda Goodman struck publishing gold with Sun Signs – pairing up every month in the calendar with another one. In India, where birth is tied up with destiny, what is fated will happen – because this is just one of the hundreds we will pass through before we attain salvation.