Many happy returns
Birthdays were a big thing when I was growing up, not just for me but for my parents too. I always felt sad when my father told me that when he was a child his birthday was barely acknowledged. My mother must have also regretted these lost opportunities, and as a result she ensured that once they were married his birthday would never be ignored. She almost went too far in the other direction – I remember a spectacular surprise party at home on his 40th, with a large crowd of guests hiding in the garden, and a surprise dinner in a smart restaurant for his 50th which he had assumed would be just for the two of them, except that when he arrived there were around 25 unannounced family members present too. The best one, his 60th, to which no one else was invited, was a one-way flight to Italy for the pair of them, and a first-class return journey by train.
So having grown up in a society where birthdays were the high spot of the year, and a chance to be feted, spoilt, indulged and overwhelmed, it took me some time to note that there are many cultures where celebrating the anniversary of one’s birth is frankly somewhat irrelevant. In China and many other parts of Asia this is the case, also in many countries of Africa, where for many families, birthday celebrations are only for the wealthy, not the hungry poor. In many orthodox Christian countries the name day is given much higher priority than the birthday; children are named after a particular saint, and their special day of the year is held on the day when their saint is being honoured.
Latin America, however, is another story; in many countries in the region, for teenage girls, the fiesta de quince años, on their 15th birthday, is a cause for serious celebration. It marks their transition from childhood to womanhood, just as the bar mitzvah in Judaism celebrates the transition for a boy to manhood.
I first came across the fiesta de quince años some years ago in the Cuban jungle. I was on a charity fund raising trek, and we had paused in the sweltering heat and humidity to have coffee with a family who lived on a little smallholding on our route. As we collapsed gratefully on the ground, we became aware of some extraordinary noises emanating from a nearby shed. Our guide respectfully enquired as to what might be inside.
We were taken over to the shed and the door was reverently opened. There lay the largest pig I have ever seen. A few moments later all was explained; the famer’s blushing teenage daughter was summoned and formally introduced to us. She would be turning 15 in a few months and the pig would be slaughtered for the occasion and served to all as part of the elaborate celebrations. For this reason it was being kept in its shed and fed on the very best corn, to ensure delectability.
This month sees damesnet’s 3rd birthday, and we dames will definitely be celebrating. Please join us at our summer picnic on August 10th from 1 pm by the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens – we can guarantee that no pigs will be slaughtered in celebration of this event.