The celebration of my birthday has gone through a lot of changes for me over the years.
It started with a small ritual at home called Jot when I was very young. It is a small ceremony in which you put a small clay lamp next to dry animal dung fuel, and put some ghee on the dung. When the dung catches fire, it’s considered auspicious and a manifestation of a demigod or a family deity.
Besides that, some special food would be made and offered to the Jot. That was all there was in this celebration of my birthday. No guests, no ceremony, no charade.
Slowly as school started and other kids celebrated their birthday, another ritual got added. It was taking candies for every kid in the home room and for all the teachers in the other rooms. These candies were actually meant as candies and not chocolates, since chocolates were a luxury that only the rich could afford during the 1980s in India.
Another thing about my birthday at school I vividly remember is that it was considered a free dress day. Though I don’t remember any official mention of “free dress day” being noted anywhere in the school diary. I think it’s a tradition which we all just assumed existed. And since no teacher objected to it, it carried on.
Slowly a few students in our class started throwing small parties in which they would call some friends for lunch. For some reason the birthday parties were never in the evening but only during the day. Evenings were exclusively reserved for lavish marriage parties and the sumptuous food associated with them. But coming back to birthday parties: there was always the expectation of a gift from the birthday boy, but it was an unspoken rule.
I remember once calling a neighbor’s kid the last minute for a birthday party. His mom asked why did I not inform her earlier. I had no answer and it was 20 seconds of silence from my side. She then rushed to a store and got a gift. I had no idea I had a choice to say “Don’t worry about the gift.” There were gift expectations at marriage parties, too. But there it was almost always a specific rupee denomination, which actually made it easier. In the case of a birthday party, however, there was extra work involved to go to the market and buy something useful and unique.
Moving forward to my IIT days, the birthday boy (yes, it was always a boy) would take everyone in the wing (and sometimes outside the school wing) out for dinner. As a birthday gift he would get bumps in the back (slightly below it actually). This may sound mean, but actually was fun as it was balanced out; and besides, every dog had his day eventually. 🙂
Now moving forward again, once in the U.S. my birthdays became more of an excuse to throw parties and get-togethers, which my wife and I both loved and still do. It almost came to a point where hypothetically if we did not show up for a party we hosted, our guests would simply interact with each other, have their own fun and then go back home. 🙂
However, let’s shift focus to something serious. It’s important to remember that one’s birthday is a reminder of a lot of things. Most important is that your stay on this planet has just been reduced by a whole year. It means you have to accelerate your march towards your personal goals, financials goals and spiritual goals (or non-goals, which is what our goals are in the spiritual realm). Last but not the least is giving back to society, which has provided favorable conditions to make you successful.
In summary, birthdays are a good reminder of the ephemeral nature of our existence and how every moment counts. And is precious.