Blog Post 159 – Birthday Superstitions
Hi all! No, this is not a shameless effort to harvest as many birthday wishes as I can, but today happens to be my birthday and I remembered a bit of magical lore that says it is particularly good luck to receive white flowers on one’s birthday. That got me to thinking about some of the other fun birthday folklore and little bits of magic, and so I thought I’d do a little compilation post on the topic. Some of this has likely been covered in our show on New Year’s, Anniversaries, & Birthdays, but I think I’ll get into some new material, too, so I hope you enjoy!
Starting with probably the most unpleasant aspect of birthday folklore, the birthday spanking, let’s look at a fairly detailed explanation of this superstition, which I am pulling from Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lindsey Thomas:
“On a child’s birthday, he should receive a blow with a switch or other instrument of pain for each year of his life. Each blow should be accompanied by the pronouncing of one line of the following or a similar incantation, adapted to fit the age of the child:
One to live on;
One to grow on ;
One to eat on;
One to be happy on;
One to get married on” (#96)
Building on the “instrument of pain” idea, Thomas also records this rather morbid tidbit:
“If you let your birthday pass without thinking of it, you will die before the next birthday” (Thomas #2854)
Here are several bits of birthday lore in the form of admonitions about what not to do on your birthday, from Europe and the Caucasus regions:
- One should not celebrate one’s birthday before the actual date of one’s birth. It will bring bad luck.
- It is bad luck to be wished a happy birthday if one is over the age of 40 (instead, many people will have parties on their ‘name day’ instead, which is the feast day of the Saint with whom they share a name).
- If you stumble with your right leg, and your birthday is an odd day, it is good luck. If you stumble with the left and your birthday is an even day, it is good luck. But stumbling with the wrong combination (right leg, even day or left leg, odd day) is very bad luck.
- You should always have an odd number of candles on the cake or pie for a birthday, even if you have to add an extra candle.
Of course, almost everyone knows that blowing out your candles brings you good luck and wishes, but they can also be divinatory tools. In an article which probably has my favorite title of any folklore article (“Signs & Superstitions Collected from American College Girls,” by Martha W. Beckwith), I found this bit of birthday augury:
“Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake will tell you how many years it will be before you are married:
(a) By the number of times you have to blow to put them all out.
(b) By the number of candles left lighted after the first blow.”
This latter belief is supported by superstition from Kentucky as well (Thomas #246, #247), so perhaps the birthday folklore from Kentucky isn’t all bad news. Vance Randolph notes that Ozark natives regard birthdays as powerfully divinatory days, especially in terms of determining bad luck:
“The typical hillman is upset by any trifling piece of ill luck which happens on his birthday, knowing that one who is unfortunate on this particular day is likely to have bad luck all year” (Randolph 66).
Randolph also records a wonderful method of bibliomancy related to one’s birthday:
“Many hillfolk tell fortunes and predict marriages by means of certain quotations from the Bible. For example, the twentyfirst and thirty-first chapters of Proverbs have thirty-one verses each. Chapter 21 is man’s birthday chapter; chapter 31 is woman’s birthday chapter. A boy looks up his proper verse in the man’s chapter, according to the date of his birth. A man born on the twenty-third of any month, for example, reads Proverbs 21 : 23 the content of this verse is supposed to be especially significant to him” (Randolph 184).
My particular verse using this method (and the King James) is: “The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want.” So apparently, I should spend some time in diligent thought, today? Hmm, I’ll need to think on that a bit.
A fairly common divination performed for young children is to place a number of items around them on their first birthday and see which one they pick up. That will determine their future occupation. Harry M. Hyatt records this belief in several forms:
“3529. On a boy’s first birthday lay before him on the floor a deck of cards, a bottle, a Bible and a piece of money: if the deck of cards is selected, he will be a gambler; if the bottle, a drunkard; if the Bible, a preacher; and if the money, a hard worker.
3530. The day a boy is a year old put down before him on the floor a pocket- book, a whiskey bottle and a deck of cards: if he reaches for the pocketbook, he will be opulent; if for the bottle, a drunkard; and if for the cards, a gambler.
3531. A boy’s future can be discovered on his first birthday by laying in front of him on the floor a book, a dollar and a hat: if he clutches the book, he will be a good learner; if the dollar, a miser; and if the hat, a stylish dresser” (Folklore from Adams Co.)
Hyatt also records an interesting variation on the birthday-candle-wish belief, saying “The person whose candle burns out first at a birthday party may make a wish,” which indicates that perhaps each party guest lights one of the birthday candles on the cake (Hyatt #8715).
Mixing the good with the bad, American Folklore: An Encyclopedia shares these pieces of birthday folk belief:
- The best day to start a business is on your birthday
- If a slice of birthday cake tips over on your plate, you will not marry
- You should put a pat of butter on your nose on your birthday for good luck (Brunvand 170-2)
The book also mentions the carnival-esque atmosphere of birthdays, in which an ordinary person might become “Queen” or “Boss” for the day—echoing the elevation of the Fool during Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations, and the idea of baking a birthday cake with little divinatory charms inside echoes the “King Cake.”
So there’s a bit of fun birthday lore for you. I don’t know which of these I’ll try out this year, though I might just secretly be hoping for that birthday spanking. One to grow on and all that. It’s all in the name of folklore, I promise.
Thanks for reading!
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