If you walk up to a random person on the street and ask their birthday, there’s only a 1:365 chance that they have the same birthday as you, about .27%. If you ask nineteen more random people, your odds improve, but only just. You’re still not up to even a 5% chance. But, if you put 19 random people in a room and start asking, the chances of two people having the same birthday increase dramatically. How good are your odds now? About 50/50. This is the birthday paradox. My name…
Approx second birthday of the show, reference title
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Their arbitrary things, calendars. We all just decided that we’d call this day the 10th of March. Before global travel and commerce, knowing the exact day didn’t matter to the average person. It barely mattered at that point either. You needed to know when to plant and when to reap; anything was specific was fluff. It’s one reason birthdays came late in the list of mankind’s cultural development. But people noticed the annual patterns, counted days and organized them and gave them names and numbers. That made annual celebrations of all kinds of things a lot easier. The earliest mention of a birthday celebration is a 3,000 B.C.E. party for an Egyptian Pharaoh. But those who have studied it believe it wasn’t the day he was born, but the day he died and as reborn as a god.
Jump forward to Greece, where people offered tributes and sacrifices to the gods and goddesses, including Artemis, goddess of the wilderness,the moon, the hunt and wild animals, fertility and birth. The Greeks made moon-shaped cakes topped with lit candles to recreate the glow of the moon and Artemis’ perceived beauty. It is assumed that the Greeks adopted the Egyptian tradition of celebrating the “birth” of a god. They, like many other pagan cultures, thought that days of major change, such as these “birth” days, left you vulnerable to evil spirits, but the candles would be both a light in the darkness, but also a symbol of a wish or prayer. Blowing out the candle would send the prayer to the gods. Ominous elements aside, these birthdays were a time for gatherings, gifts, and raucous noise.
The Egyptians and Greeks celebrated birthdays of gods and god-kings, but it would be the Romans who first celebrated the birth of non-religious figures. Regular Roman citizens would celebrate the birthdays of their friends and family and the government created public holidays in honor of more famous citizens. 50th birthdays were marked with a special cake made with wheat flour, olive oil, grated cheese, and honey. Assuming you were a man, of course. It would take until the 12th century before the female half of the population got to celebrate their birthdays.
This origin of birthday celebrations with poly-theistic religions means that birthdays didn’t go over well with the early Christian church. That stance carries through to today with Jehovah’s Witnesses. None of the protagonists in the Bible celebrated a birthday, so neither do they. Jumping ahead to the 18th century, German bakers invented the birthday cake as we know it today. Cakes with candles were served at Kinderfest, a party held for children, with one candle for each year of their age. Hot on its heels was the Industrial Revolution, which meant that white flour and sugar were being produced more efficiently and could be purchased more cheaply. Now, sweet birthday cakes were within every family’s reach.
Owing to the global saturation of American TV and movies, I’m going to assume what we do on birthdays is pretty well known, so we’ll pop up the apples and pears to Canada, where birthday boys and girls are sometimes “ambushed” and their noses smeared with grease or butter for good luck. To the south, is Mexico and the fabulously festive, if slightly violent, pinata, a brightly decorated paper mache person, animal or other shape killed with candy, that blindfolded children hit with a stick until the candy falls out. Everyone knows that, you say. Yes, but does everyone know pinatas aren’t actually Mexican? As pasta to the Italians, pinatas were invented in China, to celebrate the lunar new year ostensibly, and were brought to the new world by Europeans. Bonus fact: Russian nesting dolls aren’t Russian, either, at least the concept of them. Round hollow wooden dolls of women of descending sizes originated in Japan, as Honshu dolls. One thing Mexico does have, though, is la Quinceanera, an and-all and be-all celebration for a girl’s fifth birthday that gives any Sweet 16 party a run for its money. It has many of the same trappings as a modern wedding, with the guest of honor, herself called a Quinceanera, decked out in a beautiful gown and flanked by damas, or maids of honor, a fancy cake, and a special dance.
Jamaica has a tradition alluded to in this week’s Mystery Monday clues. The clues lat week were a snake (Chinese water, specifically), ladies in modest dress exercising, and a hot spring. You can see the clues each week on URLs and the first person to guess that week’s topic correctly gets brain stickers. Nobody guessed close enough to the topic of scam health resorts, but you’ll get ‘em next time, champs. Regardless of your age in Jamaica, you may find yourself “antiqued,” i.e. coated with flour, by friends and family, either at your party or as part of an ambush. Jamaicans also hold that it’s considered bad luck to marry on the birthday of either the groom or bride. Jury’s out on that, thankfully, since I married my husband on his birthday, in part because our wedding was a surprise for the party-goers and so that he can’t forget our anniversary.
Children in Ecuador celebrate two birthdays. Well, really one and a half. The lion’s share of the celebrating is done on the feast day of the Catholic saint they were named for. On their actual birthday, they just get a card. Celebrating on a patron’s saint’s day was common in most Catholic communities until not as comparatively recently as recently. Pinterest queens making goodie bags for their kid’s friends had better not step to Peru. There, guests at a birthday party might receive two kinds of party favors, souvenirs called recordatorio. The first is a goody bag, but the second is a pin made in honor of the event. Some are so elaborate that some children, and even adults, collect them. Peruvian children also wear fancy paper hats, though the birthday child gets a crown, natch. When selecting a gift in Peru, as well as Brazil, Italy, Switzerland, and parts of East Asia, avoid knives, scissors, or anything pointy. They represent severing of ties and relationships, not the message you’re trying to send. Unless you are, in which case, have at. I’ve done that, given a sword as a gift. Just showed up at my friend’s door in high school with it. Her mother was very perplexed. Bonus fact: Paddington Bear is from darkest Peru because his creator Michael Bond thought it would be good to have Paddington be from Africa, until his agent pointed out that there aren’t bears in Africa, so Bond changed it.
[breaking news– left Briski out of the 100th episode, will include their segment at the end of the show]
Across the Atlantic in Germany, timing is everything. Never wish someone a happy birthday before the actual day. Just to be safe, some people don’t give children their gifts until the day after their birthday. There’s a phrase for this in German: ‘Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben’ – which translates to ‘Don’t praise the day before the evening’. At least the birthday child is exempt from homework or chores while they’re waiting. In my family, of part-German extraction, you didn’t have to do housework that whole week. Ah, sehr gut. The house is decorated and the kitchen table adorned with a special wooden wreath with little candles around the outside and a big, ornate candle in the center, that is left burning all day, at least until you turn 12. Wreaths come up again if a man hits his 25th birthday a bachelor, his friends may hang sockencranz, a wreath made of old socks, on his door. The old socks are meant to mock his old age, though I had initially interpreted the sock-on-the-door things very differently. When they turn 30, still on the market, as it were, an old tradition is for them to sweep the steps of their local city hall as their friends toss rubble onto them. The embarrassing ordeal is supposed to go on until the birthday boy has so impressed a female passer-by with his domestic skills that she gives him a kiss. If you go out for drinks on your birthday in Germany, bring your wallet, because you’ll be expected to pay.
Leaving the land of hefeweizen to the isle of stouts, in Ireland, birthday children, and adults get bumps. Is this like American birthday spankings or a pinch to grow and inch. Nope! If you’re little, expect to be flipped upside by an adult to have your head gentle, one hopes, bumped against the ground, once for each year. As and adult, your friends might still try to flip you over, otherwise they’ll just bump you while you’re right-side-up.
Similar to the birthday bumps in Ireland, ear pulling is Hungary’s beloved birthday tradition. Once a year, a doting mother, an older brother prone to teasing, or an enthusiastic aunt lovingly pulls on one of the lucky birthday kid’s earlobes for each year they’ve been alive. As the pulling takes place, a simple Hungarian birthday rhyme is recited, which roughly translates to mean “God bless you and live so long your ears reach your ankles.” Hungary isn’t the only country that embraces this adorable-sounding custom. 6,000 miles away back in South America, Brazilians and Argentinians never miss the chance for birthday ear pulls.
In Holland, certain birthdays are better others. Just like we put more emphasis on ages like 16, 18, and 21, people in Holland call special years the Crown Years. Crown years happen at 5, 10, 15, 20, and 21, where the presents and the parties are bigger. The children have a cake with candles and/or taartjes, a Dutch tart, served with lemonade or hot chocolate. By the by, if you’re feeling a bit uncertain on the difference between the Netherlands and Holland, the Netherlands is the term for the country as a whole, while Holland refers to just the two provinces of North and South Holland. People and things from the Netherlands are Dutch, while Danes come from the country of Denmark.
Norway not only has a birthday song, they have a special birthday dance. There should be a link to a video in the shownotes and on the website at url/birthday. Norwegians also traditionally eat chocolate cake on their birthdays and at school that day, the birthday child picks a classmate to dance with them in front of the class. At the birthday parties guests may go fishing, but not for fish. They play a game known as Fishing for Ice Cream, where everyone pulls up a frozen treat attached to a piece of string. I demand that tradition be brought to the US immediately. Birthday celebrations are generally reserved for kids, but 18th birthdays are special because that’s when you can finally vote, buy cigarettes, drink, and drive. For clarity, there was an Oxford comma there. Norwegian families let their neighbors know there’s a birthday in the house by hanging their national flag on the house, as do folks in Denmark, though Danes put it in the window of the birthday-person. Children wake up to presents all around their bed, so they will see them as soon as they open their eyes. Rather than a sponge-type cake, Danish boys get a kagemand (or cakeman) and girls with a kagekone (or cakegirl). You might have seen them on one the Sandi Tostig seasons of Great British Bake-off. The kage-person is a yummy homunculus of cakes, sweet buns, marzipan, gummy candies, whatever you like! And service starts by cutting off its head, and everyone cheers [there was much rejoicing]. As in Germany, birthdays can get prank-y, this time for bachelorettes too. A single person might find themselves tied to a chair, nicely, and doused in cinnamon. If the lucky man or woman is still alone on their 30th birthday, the cinnamon is swapped out for eggs and black pepper. And they’ll be called “pepper man” (“pebersvend”) and she will be a “pepper maid” (“pebermø”). Denmark also puts extra emphasis on and enthusiasm in celebrating years the end in zero, when the birthday dinner easily runs over 6 hours.
Down Lituania way, they put garland on the front door when someone’s having a birthday. Like dancing the Hora at a Jewish wedding, the birthday person sits in a decorated chair and family members lift them up to three times and you may get to wear a stylish sash all day. Over in the boot, Italians are also tugging ears like the Hungarians, and paying for their own birthday dinners and drinks like the Germans, as well as being the one to bring sweets in to work. Kids in Israel get lifted up on chairs, too, but they might get to wear a crown made of leaves and flowers. Their cakes are, like most of ours in the US, made in a design reflecting what the kid is into that year, soccer, princesses, Xbox, etc. You probably already know which birthday is the special one for Jewish people, but in case someone in the back hasn’t been paying attention. When boys turn 13 and girls 12, they become bar and bat mitzvah respectively, meaning they are now adults and have to behave according to Jewish law. Cash is an okay gift, as long as it’s in a multiple of 18, a spiritually lucky number.
A Hindu child in India’s first or third birthday might be marked by the mundun, or head-shaving ritual. It’s believed that shaving the hair removes any negativity carried over from a past life, cleanses a child’s inner being while protecting them from all evil, and, as a bonus, improves hair growth. The shorn hair might be scattered in a holy river or offered to a god. The baby or toddler is then washed with holy water, if they got any cuts, those are treated with a mixture of turmeric and sandalwood. Bigger kids often get to wear new clothes on their birthdays. A child may rise at daybreak and get dressed in new clothes. The child kneels and touches the feet of their parents as a sign of respect. They then all visit a shrine, where they pray and the child is blessed. They are not expected to go to school that day, but if they do, they may hand out sweets to the entire class, with the help of a trusted friend. Remember how much fun that was? Just as well it went out of fashion–I’m one of six kids, that’s six classes worth of cupcakes each year. When giving a gift in India, shy away from those modern, minimalist wrapping papers. To receive a birthday present wrapped in black and white is considered bad luck. And definitely don’t hand it to the person with your left hand. In many countries, from Senegal to Japan and many countries in between, the left hand is considered unclean … [toilet flush] and using it for anything involving another person is disrespectful. If you’re giving cash, make it an odd-numbered amount. Odd numbers as lucky, especially if they end in a 1, since 1 signifies new beginnings and new chances for prosperity.
A Nepalese birthday child sports a colorful splodge of rice, yogurt, and bright spices or floral powdered, placed there for good luck. Oil lamps are burned instead of candles, but don’t get clever and try blowing them out. One lamp is an offer to Ganesha and the other one for good luck for the birthday child, and blowing them out would bring bad luck! If your the birthdayer and receive while in Nepal, set it aside to open it later. It’s rude to open it in from of the person. There’s giving on both sides — the family, and it’s usually family celebrating rather than friends, may give small presents to a children home or a delicious free lunch for an old people’s home or monks in their community.
Birthdays are a geographic phenomenon in Sudan. Children who live in the cities tend to celebrate them, but kids in the country don’t. Birthdays just aren’t in thing traditionally in many African cultures. But those kids who do have them can expect pizza and cake with candles, washed down with karkady, a red drink made from hibiscus flowers. Money is the gift to give, rather than toys or clothes. Sudanese kids play games, as kids everywhere do at parties, including one called The Sheep and the Hyena. The only description I’ve found only made half-sense, so if you’re Sudanese or know someone who is, slide into my DMs with that.
Like crown years in the Netherlands, Nigerians get extra excited for the 1st, 5th, 10th and 15th birthdays, with huge parties of 100 guests or more. For a big crowd, they may roast a whole cow, or a goat for a medium-sizes party, and serve it with jollof rice, made with rice, tomatoes, red peppers, onions and cassava, which is like a sweet potato and also where tapioca comes from. They play a game called Pass the Parcel that I think I’ve played at a holiday party once. It’s called Pass the Parcel, where music plays while guests pass around a package. When the music stops, the person holding the package takes one layer of wrapping off and it starts up again. The person who takes off the last layer gets the prize inside.
In Ghana, birthday kids get a special breakfast called oto, made from mashed sweet potato and eggs and fried in palm oil, and their birthday dinner, with lots of friends and family, is traditionally a stew called kelewele, served with rice and fried plantains. The Asante people specifically celebrate krada, or Soul Day. On a person’s krada, they work early for a ceremonial cleansing, washing with a special leaf soaked overnight in water. When giving gifts in Ghana, don’t read anything into it if the person doesn’t open it in front of you. Or if they do. Either way is socially acceptable. If the word “Asante” sound familiar or you’d like to learn more about them, check out episode Good Mourning To You, from back in Aug ‘18, before I started numbering them. Or you can read that section this summer when YBOF hits the scene in the form of ink lines on flattened tree mush. url
Birthday celebrations in Kenya are very similar to those in the United States. Kids commonly bring treats to school on their birthday, but the kids actually feed each other their cake. Speaking of which, the birthday-ee will first be fed a piece of cake by their parent, then the teacher, followed by their best friend. If you’re visiting with the Maasai, don’t think a thing of it if someone spits on your present before giving it to you. [cartoon spit sound] Actually, you can feel good about it, because it’s a way of giving blessings. The Maasai also spit on the head of a new-born child, on their hands before they shake, and as a sign of greeting or farewell.
In Egypt, where birthdays arguably started, they decorate the house with paper garlands called zeena that look a bit like paper doll-style snowflakes. Babies get two birthdays in theri first year, …from a certain point of view. Friends, relatives, and neighbors gather at the home with lighted candles, flowers and fruit when the baby is one week old, and again 51 weeks later for a big party with dancing and singing on their actual birthday. Speaking of things that happen twice, it’s traditional for gifts to be wrapped twice in Egypt, in two different colors. Flowers may be used to decorate the house, but don’t give them as a gift. In Egypt, flowers are strictly reserved for weddings or the sick.
From the Nile, we head to Novgorod. Russia is another country where you don’t do birthday things before the proper date. If scheduling is an issue, you’d better push it to later. In Russia, birthday children get a present at school, not only from their friends, but they may get flowers, art supplies, or a book from their teacher. Those flower will *not include yellow tulips (in Russia, those stand for betrayal and the end of a relationship) and there will be an off number (because even-numbered bouquets are for funerals). Besides the gifts in school, one of my favorite birthday traditions is the clothesline birthday party tradition. Basically, adults hang up clothes lines with small gifts hanging off of them and kids pull one down as a party favor. Rather than a birthday cake, they might be presented with a pie with a birthday greeting baked into the crust. It’s not uncommon for people to initially refuse the offer of a gift. If they do, protocol is to leave it on a table before leaving and says something that minimizes the gesture.
I’m not skipping over Oceania, but birthdays are either quite a recent addition to the culture or it wouldn’t add much to the conversation. After reading several lists of birthday traditions, the only thing anyone said about Australia was that they eat fairy bread – white bread, spread with butter, and topped with round sprinkles (hundreds & thousands if you’re from the home counties). At least this will test if my one sister listens to the show. She’s lived in Australia for over a decade.
The Philippines are a mixture of East and West. Birthday cakes, balloons, even pinatas, sure, but also noodles representing long life. You can tell where someone is having a birthday; look for the house with colored, blinking lights on the outside. In Indonesia, you’d better keep your head on a swivel, because pranks are more popular than parties. Trust no one. Your family and closest friends are biding their time, waiting for a chance to push you into a pool, smashed cake in your face, or bestow upon your head water, flour and eggs.
There are some spots in Asia, where some people get to be a kid again when they reach a certain age. When a man reaches the age of 61 in Japan, he enters his kanreki, or second childhood. He must wear a red hat and red vest to symbolize his return to childhood. From then on, all his troubles are forgotten and he is given a clean slate. In Korea and China, this tradition occurs when you reach the age of 60. On that special birthday, people can return to the year they were born and essentially start anew.
In Malaysia, amidst the family, food, music and games, you may get or give an ang-bao. This is a small red packet filled with money. Crisp new bills and shiny coins only, please; no battered old money. Red envelopes and longevity noodles are back as we move into China. The longer the noodles, the longer the person’s life, is the hope, and they’re slurped up whole rather than being bitten short. The amount of money in the envelope should *not begin with the #4–it sounds like the Chinese for “death.” That’s also why you won’t find 4th floors in Chinese buildings, just tall buildings in the west jump from the 11th floor to the 13th. 8, on the other hand, is a lucky number, so work that into the amount of money. If you’re thinking of giving your friend a watch or clock, think again. The phrase “give a clock” in Chinese sounds like “attend a funeral.” Not a sentiment you want to put across. The British Minister for Culture found this out the hard way when she gifted the mayor of Taipei with a watch. She hadn’t done her research, and had unwittingly offended the mayor, who responded by saying he would ‘Sell it to a scrap dealer.’ Neither would you want to give a man a green hat. There are actually multiple reasons why a green hat means his wife has been cheating on him. Making a fruit basket for a hostess gift? Mandarins are good, because the word for them translates to gold, but no pears, because that means “separation.”
On the day a child is born, he or she begins life as a 1-year-old (time in utero is considered the first year of life). As such, their first official birthday bash actually occurs on their second birthday. On that day, the child is placed in front of an array of objects, and whatever they pick up first is believed to reveal an aspect of their personality or a future interest. If the birthday girl or boy selects a toy plane, for example, that could indicate a future filled with travel. Or if a mirror is selected, the child may be considered vain.
Interestingly, there are entire years that are considered bad luck years, it’s taboo for women to celebrate turning 30, 33 or 66 years old. To cast aside lousy luck at 30, women remain 29 years old for an extra year. At 33, evil spirits are kicked to the curb by pounding on a piece of meat 33 times before throwing it away. And at 66, the birthday girl recruits a daughter or a close female friend to chop up a piece of meat for her no more or less than 66 times.
Scheduling is easy in Vietnam. It’s on New Year’s Day. For everyone. Everyone celebrates their birthday on Tet. You heard about tet in episode #93, New Year, New Everyone. Your date of birth doesn’t really matter. When Tet rolls around, you are now a year older. A baby turns one on Tet whether they’ve been breathing air for one month or twelve. This can cause some awkwardness in childhood. In school, for example, you can see children two years apart in biological age can be in the same grade. On the first morning of Tet, adults congratulate children on becoming a year older by presenting them with red envelopes that contain “Lucky Money,” or li xi. In Vietnam (and China, Thailand and other places), always offer or accept a gift with both hands, palms up. The recipient will probably refuse once, twice, or even three times. If you’re the recipient, you should do the same. When the person finally accepts, you’re expected to thank *them.
In Korea, on a child’s 100th day of life, a small feast with rice cakes and sweetened red or black bean cakes, is held to celebrate the child having survived that long. If the baby is sick, they skip the party and don’t mention the milestone day to avoid jinxing the baby. A child’s most important birthday is the first birthday. A huge to-do is to-done, complete a big meal, your best clothes, and all the stops pulled out in the decorating. The child’s future is told by the items the birthday child picks up.
It’s difficult to know what really goes on for birthdays, if there are birthdays for most people, in North Korea. In 2017, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un banned all gatherings that include alcohol and singing, so I’ll go out on a limb and say that when there are birthday parties, they’re done as quietly as possible. It’s the opposite to celebrating the birthdays of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and father, Kim Jong-il. Those are national holidays. And they are compulsory. On these days — Day of the Sun and Day of the Shining Star, respectively — North Koreans must visit locations connected to the lives of the former leaders, including statues erected in their honor. Plus Christians are banned from celebrating Christmas Eve on Dec 24 and must instead celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-un’s dead grandmother, Kim Jong-suk. And no North Korean is permitted to celebrate their birthday on December 17, the date of Kim Jong-il’s death, or July 8, the anniversary of Kim II-sung’s death.
In Japan there is a Shinto Festival called Shichi-Go-San, which roughly means “seven-five-three”. All three year old children, as well as five year old boys and seven year old girls, are taken to the temple and given special sweets by the priest. The family give thanks for the child’s health and prays for a long life to come. You wear brand new fancy clothes and on the way home, you might stop to buy a special bag of candy with the words “sweets for 1000 years of life” written on them. The gifts you give are only as good as their wrapping. The writing must not only be smartly executed, but there are meanings that go along with how it’s done. For example, an odd number of pleats stands for joy.
And that’s….So how does the birthday paradox happen, why are the odds of finding someone in a room of twenty people with the same birthday as you ten times higher than asking people in the wild? When you put 20 people in a room, each of the 20 people is now asking each of the other 19 people about their birthdays. Each individual person only has a small (less than 5%) chance of success, but each person is trying it 19 times. That increases the probability dramatically. Remember… Be sure to stay tuned for the guest segment from Turn of Phrases. Thanks…