#SuperstitionSat Anniversary: Superstitions of Birthdays & Birth

Today is a special day, and a special day deserves a special blog post! The second Saturday of April marks the 2nd anniversary of our first #SuperstitionSat Session in 2020, therefore this month’s in-house article will look at some superstitions about birthdays and birth – similarly to our theme on Twitter today.

Birthdays are an interesting topic in Folklore studies, in my humble view. This celebration is currently observed by a large proportion of people in the world, mostly in the West but still spreading, apart from certain countries and religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. From the early 20th century onwards, it became so ordinary that most of the people enacting it don’t even think to look back on its origins. To begin, we mark one year of life, every year – as if we were observing the passing of the cycle of the seasons. We gather around a table with our friends and family and commemorate our Birth day (or theirs). Then, we make a wish, we blow candles, and we distribute cake too – all in hopes that the next cycle of life will be lucky, prosperous and lived to the fullest, with many happy returns, etc.

And this is what is so interesting about birthdays. What seems to have started as a trend, rooted in superstition and folklore, became so commonplace and innocuous that even people who would dismiss superstitions as pointless and silly are out there right now, celebrating birthdays, unaware they are plainly superstitious!

But enough with the armchair philosophy. Let’s talk about cake.

Photo of a white cat wearing a bow tie, sitting by a cake with a candle shaped like the number two on top. In the background, we can see a bit of a colourful banner that should say happy birthday.
Photo of a cat’s birthday by Asal Mshk on Unsplash

The majority of birthday celebrations in the Western world today follow these common instructions: sing a regional variation of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song, make a wish for the coming year, followed by blowing out candles placed on a (hopefully) delicious cake, then cut it and serve it to our friends and family – or be served, depending on individual traditions.

The staple of cake itself is said to have originated in Ancient Greece (as theories always seem to say), as lunar cycle offerings to the goddess Artemis – and thus cakes were baked in a circular shape and adorned with a candle to represent the full moonlight. Fast forwarding to 1901, when the custom of birthdays seems to have truly taken off, records in Britain described birthday cakes with candles as a tradition that had travelled from Germany – with some suggesting previous connections to a festival of yore to honour children, aptly called Kinderfest.

According to the Penguin Guide of Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, the custom then was to put a single candle on a cake (much like the Ancient Greek theory), to symbolise Lebenslicht – the Light of Life. However, earlier in 1883, the first volume of The Folk-Lore Journal had stated that in Switzerland – as well as Württemberg, currently a German region – the birthday cake “must have lights arranged around it, one candle for each year of life” and that “before the cake is eaten, the person whose birthday it is should solemnly blow out the candles one after another”. Perhaps back then people had the same thoughts as today: while it does look pretty to have 72 candles on a cake, one is safer and easier to be lit, as well as being a lot cheaper and doing the same job! Right?

Painting of a room with many children sitting and eating at a table, being served by an older lady. In the foreground, a curious dog approaches an older child cradling a baby at another smaller table, and three cats wait beside them for scraps. In the background, adults sit at a table as well, presumably waiting for the party to finish.
Ein Kinderfest by Ludwig Knaus (1868) via Wikimedia Commons

As for serving the cake, in Portugal I was always told that the responsibility of cutting the pastry falls to the person whose birthday it is, in order for them to share their prosperity with their guests – but knowing the people who told me this, they were probably just trying to get away with being served by me! Another superstition I grew up with claimed that after making a silent wish and blowing the candles out, it was necessary to bite the bottom of the candle and save it until next year – thus ensuring the wish would definitely come true. Finally, one other thing I learnt was that it was supposedly bad luck to wish someone happy birthday before their due date, which could put them in danger of not living long enough to see their special day – even if untrue, I still prefer to not risk it! Have you ever heard any of these superstitions? Please let me know!

But speaking of special days, being born on a certain weekday is another source of superstitions, meant to predict the type of person one might become as a grown up. In Britain, a nursery rhyme of this kind of prognosis was recorded in 1838 by Anna Eliza Bray in Traditions, Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire, that claimed:

“Monday’s child is fair in face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;
And a child that’s born on a Christmas day
Is fair and wise, good and gay.”

Just like we saw in the Magpie Rhyme last month, it was not uncommon for people to come up with multiple variations of the same rhyme in different regions or even countries, taking superstitions with them as they travelled or migrated. The unreliability of the human brain means, however, that this could sometimes lead to opposing beliefs taking root in different places, such as the example below published in the St Nicholas Magazine around 1875 in New York. Here, the sad fate of being born on a Wednesday seems to have been swapped to a Thursday, when compared to the preceding version from Mrs Bray. I’m fine with both varieties though – I was born on a Friday!

Illustration of seven children, presumably born on the seven days of the week. The rhyme which the illustration describes says: "The child that is born on the Sabbath day is blithe and bonny, and good and gay; Monday's child is fair of face; Tuesday's child is full of grace; Wednesday's child is merry and glad; Thursday's child is sour and sad; Friday's child is loving and giving; and Saturday's child must work for its living."
‘Monday’s Child’ illustration from St Nicholas Magazine, published in New York by Scribner & Co between 1873 and 1943 via Wikimedia Commons

Being born at certain times of day and night has also been associated with fateful outcomes. The controversial folklorist Ruth Tongue is said to have coined the term Chime Child – a belief that being born at the cardinal hours of three, six, nine or twelve o’clock might give a child certain psychic abilities, particularly if twelve chimes mean midnight. Descriptions of this belief were popularised, for instance, by the author Charles Dickens who noted in the 1849 Victorian classic David Copperfield that a witching hour birth could provide one with the capacity to see ghosts and spirits. Reading this passage, I’m now quite shocked because Dickens also said that being born on a Friday is actually unlucky! Oh gosh, there goes my lucky birth superstition.

According to Black Dog Folklore by Mark Norman, other talents associated with being born between midnight and cock-crow (especially on Fridays) might be: the ability to see and speak with fairies, the power of Witchcraft, and the ability to heal animals and plants. However, the most widespread belief regarding the circumstances of one’s birth and the threads of fate would certainly have to be the Zodiac itself.

Long said to be rooted in Babylonian astrology, the Zodiac signs show us that it’s not a new thing to want to believe that hours, days, months, or even years of birth might affect our destinies. One such way was the tendency to be afflicted by specific health issues throughout our lifetime, as recalled in the illustration below, found in the revered book Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain by Reader’s Digest.

Ilustration depicting a human body superimposed by the astrological signs. Descriptions with arrows pointing at different body parts say that: "Aries the ram rules the head, Taurus the bull rules the neck, Cancer the crab rules the breasts, Gemini the twins rules the arms, Leo the lion rules the heart, Virgo the virgin rules the intestines, Libra the scales rules the kidneys, Scorpio the scorpion rules the genitals, Sagittarius the archer rules the hips and thighs, Capricorn the goat rules the bones and knees, Aquarius the water-bearer rules the ankles, Pisces the fish rules the feet."
Illustration of ‘The Astrological Man’ from Folklore Myths And Legends of Britain by Reader’s Digest (1973)

What about you? Were you born on a certain day of the week that you feel has affected you positively or negatively? Can you see and converse with ghosts due to being a chime child? Or did you find that you were indeed affected by specific health issues related to your Zodiac sign? I hope you weren’t!

I’m looking forward to reading more birth (and birthday) superstitions like these, shared by you on today’s session (09/04/22) from your corner of the world. Remember to tag us on Twitter with our handle or hashtag #SuperstitionSat for a retweet! And for more information, please visit our newly added section on Session Guidelines here.

Thank you for reading – and participating! Until next time,
– Superstition Sam 🐾

Further Reading:
The Folk-Lore Journal Volume 1
by The Folklore Society (1883)
Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain
by The Reader’s Digest (1973)