Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Happy birthday to Me, Me, Me, in this age of narcissism

Celebrations: the birthday 'cult'
Mary Kenny

It was my husband's birthday recently: the family came to visit and friends dropped around. He is not a birthday person, however. His prejudice is nothing to do with ageing. It's more the traditional reflex of an Englishman: don't make a fuss.

Making a fuss is embarrassing. Making a fuss is drawing attention to yourself. Making a fuss is what drama queens do.

During the Second World War, when the Blitz was bombing the hell out of London and other cities, an Englishman – or woman – when asked about the conditions of life, was expected to reply: "Mustn't grumble". Many a Londoner's last words were "mustn't grumble", before a direct hit.

An Englishman – or woman – doesn't blub when given bad news. The stiff upper lip must be maintained. It rattles the troops if you start blubbing.

All this is hopelessly outdated now. Television has changed behaviour in every society and the kissing, hugging and bursting into tears that is now normal conduct on every reality show has overtaken old shibboleths about don't make a fuss. Everyone must now make a fuss – as often and loudly as possible.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why birthdays have become much more of a focus than they used to be.

A child's birthday might be celebrated with gifts and cards and reaching the age of 21 would be marked with some rite of passage.

But, except among the very rich, or a monarch, ordinary birthdays were seldom a big deal. It was considered rather egotistical to draw attention to oneself.

The birthday business became more commodified over the years: birthday cards of every conceivable design were manufactured – from the raucously comedic to the soppily devoted.

The range of birthday cards available today is a study in anthropology. There is a card for every conceivable relative – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and now, as we live longer, great-grandparents.

The greetings card business keeps up with the times and there are cards for partners as well as The Best Husband in the World and The Most Adorable Wife Ever.

No harm in a birthday card – it's a kind thought and brings harmless pleasure. Everyone likes to be remembered.

But the much ado over adult birthdays is sometimes striking. Is it part of the childishness and egotism of modern life? Is it the 'Me. Me. Me.' reflex that denotes a narcissistic age?

I'm fascinated by the way the French celebrate their saints' days, as well as their birthdays. However secular, agnostic or even downright atheistic the French proclaim to be, their saints' days are a regular feature on calendars.

These jours de fete are not so much an opportunity for devotional exercises as a chance to draw attention to Me. Me. Me. How gratifying to have a double whammy of birthday and saint's day. And it all makes the wheels of commerce turn.

The expansion of the birthday cult is linked with smarter marketing and a sense of individualism, such as the appearance of more unusual first names.

It's probably associated with smaller families, too: if you were one of 12 children, you would be unlikely to expect a great excitement to be stirred over your birthday when there are 11 others.

Then everything is more hyped-up than it used to be: archaic virtues such as discretion and decorum have faded and keeping your date of birth secret would be (a) impossible and (b) considered bizarre.

But if it's your birthday today, dear reader, have a grand one, with lots of fuss and plenty of cards.

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