History of Happy Birthdays

On August 6, 2013, Curiosity played “Happy Birthday to You” to itself in honor of the one year – One Earth Year, since it landed on Mars. That was the first time a song was played on another planet. It was also the first time music was transmitted between two planets.

The Earliest Noted Birthdays

The idea of birthdays started right after we started keeping track of time, with calendars. The oldest reference we know of was from around 3000 BC (Genesis 40:20-23) and it was a Pharaoh’s Birthday, but in his case, it was his birth when he was crowned as pharaoh – which they viewed as ascending to godhood.

This is related to the tradition of Christian Saints, who are remembered with their feast days; they’re are traditionally set on the anniversary of their “birth” into heaven: which would be the day they died. Early Christians considered celebrating birthdays a pagan tradition. The birth of Jesus was mentioned in the Bible, but no actual date was mentioned. The other Biblical reference to a birthday was for King Herod (Matthew 14:6-12), who celebrated by executing John the Baptist.

Although the births of Mary, mother of Jesus, and John the Baptist were noted in early Christianity, they were not celebrated by common believers. The first known birthday party invitations were sent by Claudia Severa, the wife of a Roman commander named Aelius Brocchus in 100 AD. Paper wasn’t in use yet, so the Birthday Invitations were sent on wooden slabs, they survived, and that’s how we know the date (3 days before the Ides of September).

Birthdays were sometimes noted by successful politicians and soldiers in ancient times as well. Egypt’s Alexandria, it has been said, was designed in a location where the morning sun aligned with Alexander The Great’s birthday.

The Birthday Candle

The first candles were placed on cakes honoring the gods in ancient Greece. Germans started the modern Birthday Party with Kinderfeste, in the late 18th century. This party was held for German kids, or “kinder,” and featured a birthday cake adorned with candles.

Kids were given one candle on top of the cake for each year they had been alive, plus one for the hope of living for at least one more year – we’d call it FOR LUCK. Blowing out these candles while making a wish was part of the party. Christian and Jewish communities both started celebrating birthdays about this time.

The Happy Birthday Song.

Two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, who happened to be school teachers, wrote a song called “Good Morning To All” in 1893 that was published in a book for other school teachers. The original intent of this song was to be sung in a class by students before starting the day.

Robert Coleman published a songbook in 1924 that featured the song with new lyrics, and that became The Happy Birthday song we all know. In 1933, this new version was used in an Irving Berlin musical. The Hill Sisters sued on the grounds that they held the copyright to the tune, and they won the case.

The Copyright of ‘Happy Birthday’

Warner Bros ended up owning the lyrics, and they split the copyright money with the estate of the Hills, who owned the melody. The royalties for the song were the reason so many restaurants make up their own birthday songs, it was seldom heard in film and television. The song became Public Domain in 2016 and anybody can sing it now. 
At the time the copyright ended, it was making around $2 million a year.

What else should we know about Birthdays?

  • October 5 is generally regarded as the most popular Birthday in the US- Nine months before October 5 is New Year’s Eve, which makes sense.
  • May 22 is considered to be the least common birthday in America- they would be generally Babies conceived on Labor Day.
  • Born November 7th? Your parents probably had a very romantic Valentine’s Cay.
  •  If you were born on August 6th, You were likely conceived the week of… November 13th (the prior year)
  • The biggest Birthday party of All Time was the Sultan of Brunei’s 50th, in 1996. He spent $27 million, $16 million of that went toward Michael Jackson performing there.