I live in America, and Americans celebrate birthdays. There is often mega hoopla, as I like to say. And in my experience it is hardly ever questioned. But I know quite a few people who do not know their date of birth and even do not know how old they are. One of them is my brother-in-law. He’s from a country where the remembrance of birthdays isn’t important; they have other occasions they celebrate. It’s quite something for a westerner to contemplate not knowing one’s age or birthday; many of us feel that it is part of our identity. Yet it means almost nothing to someone else.
Dude and I haven’t celebrated our respective birthdays for a few years now. I make some good food and that’s about it. We did do small parties, just family, with our first daughter. When our second daughter was born we decided that rather than start this whole birthday cycle all over again – we were going to opt out. We discussed it with her, then nearly 7, and while she wasn’t overjoyed, she understood the points we laid out for her and she knows that we do celebrate both Eids rather vigorously (with gifts).
Why? Well, this was in line with how we felt about birthdays previously. When our oldest was a baby we had already decided not to send her to other children’s extravagant birthday parties because, especially for girls, they were getting bigger and bigger. It wasn’t uncommon at all to hear of parents spending several thousands on their teenager’s birthday party. And what sort of broke my grim little heart were other, less financially fortunate children being mocked for not having the money either to have a birthday party like that, or to give the kind of expensive gifts that were expected. It’s hard to even verbalize how uncomfortable that makes me on so many levels. I’ll just say that I feel a birthday celebration should be about people taking some time to be happy someone they love was even born at all. It’s not about presents, not about getting to do whatever you want that day, not about out-glamming everyone else around.
Our faith played the largest role in our decision. There are many in Islam who say birthdays are haram; I’m not comfortable going that far, and I’m not the haram police. It seems to me that it can enter the realm of idolizing, albeit just for one day. Strangely, what seems to bother people the most about our decision is the lack of presents. Really, is that what matters? I mean, I’d like to think that the moments that stick in my girlies’ heads now and when they are older are made up not of wrapping paper and plastic, but instead the bits of joy in the time we spent together. Stuff is just stuff – and our decision to cut out the gift-giving part of birthdays falls in with our increasing interest in minimalism. I can’t reconcile myself to a surplus of new possessions when my Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions were so bereft of items to eat or sell for food that they routinely went around with rocks tied to their stomachs to allay the hunger pangs. I am a soft, modern, wimp. Yes I am. The least I can do is try harder in the way I feel is best.
So, what actually happens on the girls’ birthdays? First, a story. A few years ago, before we decided to stop birthdays, I got a book out at the library for my oldest called Zen Shorts. In it, Stillwater, a panda, says that he gives his friends gifts on his own birthday as a show of appreciation that he was born and got to know them. Amazing. It reminded me so greatly of what the founder of our masjid had said about birthdays: “Make a big meal for everyone on your birthday.” Lovely advice, and one that I intend to put into practice soon with my biggest girly – who is looking forward to cooking dinner with mom on her birthday this month.