This month, my friend threw a birthday party for her toddler. The classic elements—balloons, striped cone-shaped hats, and two kinds of homemade cake (chocolate and vanilla)—culminated in the climax of every birthday party: The moment when the celebrants gather around the guest of honor and sing “Happy Birthday to You.”
Later that night, as my friend put her child to bed, the little girl announced that she didn’t like the birthday song and felt mad when people sang it to her. “I think she means that she got anxious,” my friend said, translating a three-year-old’s emotional vocabulary. And so it was that her young child was ushered into an important rite of passage—feeling deeply awkward on your birthday.
It’s hard not to feel embarrassed when you’re the recipient of the “Happy Birthday” song. Part of the problem lies in the one-sidedness of the tradition: While everyone else sings and stares, the birthday honoree has nothing to do. Joining in feels inappropriate. It’s fine for others to congratulate you on not being dead yet, but a bit self-obsessed to congratulate yourself.
But the bigger issue with the birthday song is that it brings to the forefront the deeper discomfort that many people, from toddlers to grownups, feel about celebrating our birthdays in general. Some of us simply hate being the center of attention. Others crumble under the stress. Often, the celebrations can just be kind of a let down. The classic children’s book The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday memorably captures the feeling of emotional overload that comes with excitement and high expectations, warning, “At the first big party we sometimes forget, that the birthday bear may end up upset.” And yet lower-key plans can also lead to disappointment. Who among us hasn’t been—or feared becoming—Carrie in one memorable Sex and the City episode, sitting by herself at a restaurant, convinced her friends have stood her up?
Perhaps the safest route for the birthday-shy would be to relinquish celebrations altogether. But friends and family members often want to mark the occasion. And even self-proclaimed “non-birthday people” tend to want some kind of acknowledgment—a glass of champagne with a loved one, phone calls and texts from family and friends. Our birthdays, after all, are a reminder that time is passing, which forces even the toughest among us to take stock of our lives. It’s hard to believe that anyone truly wants to spend their birthday feeling as if no one has taken notice of their existence at all.
So what’s to be done about the problem of birthdays—particularly when you’re an adult, and the more immediate gratifications (frosting, presents) have lost their luster?
There’s no easy way to get past a birthday’s inherent awkwardness, which emerges from the tension between our desire to feel loved and appreciated by others and our self-consciousness about that desire, with some healthy fear of mortality thrown into the mix. But we can, at least, understand the roots of that awkwardness with a bit of historical context, as told through the lens of the birthday song.
Today, “Happy Birthday” is the most-sung ditty in the English language, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. A 2018 video from Conde Nast Traveler, featuring people from 70 different countries singing their nations’ traditional birthday songs, reveals that the song is also standard in countries ranging from France, Spain, Germany, and Italy to China, South Korea, South Africa, Malaysia, Lebanon, Egypt, and beyond.
We have a Kentucky educator Patty Hill and her sister, ethnomusicologist Mildred Hill, to thank—or blame—for unleashing the “Happy Birthday” song upon the world. In 1889, Patty and Mildred teamed up to write songs for children, as George Washington University law professor Robert Brauneis explains in a paper (paywall) about the song’s complicated legal history. Patty, the principal at a local kindergarten, was the lyricist, while Mildred wrote the melodies.
To create the song we know today, the sisters went through an iterative process, testing the music out on Patty’s students to see which parts were difficult for kids to sing and adjusting it accordingly. The melody that we know today as “Happy Birthday” was first written as “Good Morning to All”; you can probably guess the lyrics.
But by the 1910s, according to Brauneis, “Happy Birthday” began to appear as a variation of the lyrics in American songbooks. Birthday celebrations had only recently become commonplace in US culture, he explains, and so a song designated for the occasion had little in the way of competition. He writes:
According to scholar Elizabeth Pleck, birthday parties did not become common even among wealthy Americans until the late 1830s; modern birthday cakes emerged after 1850; and peer-culture birthday parties, involving children of the same age as the child whose birthday was being celebrated, emerged between 1870 and 1920, after American urban public schools became age-graded.
To be clear, it wasn’t as if no one in history had ever celebrated birthdays before. Ancient Romans threw birthday bashes featuring gift-giving and banquets, which served the dual purpose of honoring each individual’s personal deity (pdf). Medieval Germans prepared precursors to modern-day birthday cakes for children, calling the occasion Kinderfest; the British journal Folk-Lore, circa 1883, reported that the Swiss stuck candles on the cake, one for each year of life, and required the honoree to “solemnly blow out the candles one after the other.” Well-off families in Victorian England also threw lavish birthday parties for their kids, according to Pleck, using them as a ritual that could “teach children the manners they would need to assume their place of privilege in society.”
But birthday parties only truly went mainstream in the 20th century, buoyed by factors including the relatively recent cultural celebration of childhood and the prosperous post-World War II era that gave rise to America’s robust middle class. (It’s worth noting, too, that given sky-high child mortality rates across cultures for most of history, celebrating birthdays may have seemed like tempting fate.) As birthday recognition increasingly became the norm, so too did “Happy Birthday” become woven into the fabric of festivities.
Brauneis notes several landmark moments in the tune’s path to ubiquity. It was featured in the world’s first singing telegram in 1933; in two 1937 Hollywood films, On the Avenue and Stella Dallas; and in Marilyn Monroe’s historically seductive 1962 rendition at Madison Square Garden, on the occasion of John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday.
The song’s incredible popularity meant that whoever owned the rights to it stood to rake in a lot of revenue. In 1988, Warner Music Group acquired control of the song, allowing it to make at least $2 million each year from commercial performances, including film and TV shows. That set off a contentious series of copyright disputes, which were finally settled in 2016, when a US district judge approved a settlement that put “Happy Birthday” in the public domain.
It’s worth noting that while “Happy Birthday” is the go-to song for many people around the world, there are alternatives. Some black Americans instead sing Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song, originally written during the push to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, as Aisha Harris writes for Slate. And some countries, including The Netherlands, Poland, Israel, and Mexico, have their own distinct melodies and lyrics. Russia apparently has several options, including a melancholy tune originally popularized by an accordian-playing Claymation crocodile.
But it seems that a lot of countries and cultures today do share the desire to have some kind of birthday song to mark the occasion; a tune that we first hear when we’re small, and that we keep singing—to our own children, and to one another—as we grow up. Setting aside national anthems and religious hymns, Brauneis notes that “Happy Birthday” is often “the only secular song passed down through an oral folk song tradition and still sung in adulthood.”
He also quotes David Huron, a professor of music at Ohio State University, who observed in a 1999 lecture that “Happy Birthday” is noteworthy in part because it is a “thoroughly domestic work … performed in the kitchen or the lunch room rather than the concert hall. No other musical work has evoked so much spontaneous music-making.” “Happy Birthday,” in other words, is an incredibly common song that—because it is sung specifically, each year, to us—feels deeply personal.
There’s a sadness to “Happy Birthday” that’s inextricable from its sweetness. Today in the US, it’s often sung almost comically slowly, at the tempo of a dirge. By beyond that, the song is bound to remind us of when we were little and vulnerable, and make us think about all the ways that we’re still pretty vulnerable now, too. This is why the news that the Mars Rover hummed a lonely, hopeful “Happy Birthday” to itself back in 2013, on a planet millions of miles away, was enough to move plenty of people back on Earth to the brink of tears.
But while many of us may blush or squirm when “Happy Birthday” is directed our way, we also love to sing it to someone else. Take a look at that Conde Nast Traveler video again; how sincere everyone looks, bobbing their heads along with the melody or clasping their hands in proper choral style. It’s a melody designed to be so simple that almost anyone can sing along, which makes it the perfect ritual. And there’s comfort in rituals, even ones that simultaneously make us uncomfortable, too.
These conflicting emotions are at the heart of the “Happy Birthday” song. We can no more hope to avoid it than we can avoid the process of aging itself, and the inevitable losses and disappointments that we’ll face. But the song is a small, dependable gift we can offer one another, whether we’re close family or strangers in a restaurant. Sure, it’s embarrassing to sit there while everyone sings, but that’s fitting. It’s embarrassing to be alive, generally. At least in this case, afterward, there’s cake.
My friend’s toddler is already coming to terms with these realities. The day after her party, she told her mom that she’d decided she liked the song after all, and she couldn’t wait to sing “Happy Birthday” again. She’ll have plenty of chances.