Jan 10, 2024

Birthday bumps and sugary icing: This is what childhood birthdays were made of

An older person I spoke with recalled her memories of birthday parties as a child, not about the gifts or food, but the compulsory party games that would follow the birthday tea. [Source: Shutterstock]

Every year, we celebrate the day we were born; for a child born in the 1930s and 1940s, the day would include the traditional birthday cake usually baked by the mother and decorated in white sugar icing with the number of candles added that corresponded with the age of the individual celebrating the birthday.

I spoke to Edna* about the anticipation of the birthday cake, remembering her mother entering the darkened room, carefully carrying the cake glowing with burning candles and with a proud smile. The cake would be presented to the birthday guest of honour for them to blow the candles out, hopefully in one go, then immediately make a special secret wish.

The tea table would have an array of specialty food such as egg and cress sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, jelly and ice cream adorned the table, all washed down with orange cordial. 

The birthday boy or girl would have invited children from their class at school, eagerly awaiting their arrival with anticipation of the presents they would be bringing. Each child would arrive with their mothers grasping a small birthday gift to present to their host.

Another older person I spoke with recalled her memories of birthday parties as a child, not about the gifts or food, but the compulsory party games that would follow the birthday tea. They would consist of three main games: “Pass the parcel”, “musical chairs”, and “pin the tail on the donkey”. 

The final part of the activities of childhood birthdays was the proverbial “Birthday Bumps”.

There would be reluctance of the birthday boy or girl and excitement and delirious anticipation from the guests at the party.

The consensus amongst older people I have talked to about childhood memories of birthdays was one of simplicity and uncomplicated fun and laughter. Another lady told me today’s birthdays are too complicated. “They have to have a theme, the more elaborate, the better”. It takes away the true meaning of a birthday; the more modest way of celebrating birthdays in yesteryear was more fulfilling and meaningful, but after all, that’s progress.

Birthdays are a time of year when we reflect on the moment we took our first breath of air and became alive. Entering the world with innocence, hopes and dreams, never knowing what pathway lay ahead. Each birthday is an opportunity to celebrate and rejoice that we have reached another milestone in life’s mysterious journey. Life itself is a gift that should be cherished and revered.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “It’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those mentioned

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