The Curiously Liturgical Birthday Party

Jul 6, 2019

In the same way the priest repairs behind the iconostasis to consecrate the bread and wine, so a celebrant of the birthday party repairs to the kitchen to consecrate the cake. The cake is ritually transformed into the body of the birthday boy or birthday girl through the lighting of candles. For every year the birthday boy has lived, one candle is lit. When all the candles are lit, the cake has become an icon of the birthday boy. The celebrant then ritually processes out from behind the iconostasis/kitchen toward the congregation of the party. At the appearing of the cake/host, the congregation begins to sing a hymn of blessing in honor of the birthday boy. Like most religious mantras and novice prayers, the hymn of blessing is simple. “Happy birthday to you” is sung four times, however, on the third repetition, the formulaic “to you” is replaced with “dear [name].” In like manner, the litany sung by the people when the priest processes the host around the nave is repetitious, and slight variations are made to account for the calendar and the immediate needs of the congregation.

At the conclusion of the hymn of blessing, the celebrant presents the cake/host to the birthday boy. This moment closely mirrors the priest’s presentation of the host at the altar after his procession around the nave. Upon being presented with an icon of his own body, a moment of silence ensues wherein the birthday boy offers an unspoken prayer to God, and in this prayer, he represents to God the deepest yearnings of his heart. Having made his requests known to God, the birthday boy extinguishes the candles of cake, and thus symbolically ends his own life even as Christ was not truly murdered, but “offered up His spirit.” A tradition yet persists that the birthday boy must extinguish all the candles in a single breath in order for his prayer to be answered, thus implying that only those whose self-offering is unrestrained (holding back nothing) will be repaid.

When the candles are blown out, the cake— which represents the body of the birthday boy— is cut apart and shared out to all the guests of the party, even as Christ shared His body with His followers. As a token of his free decision to offer up his life for his friends, the birthday boy traditionally consumes the first bite of cake, and the guests are only free to eat afterwards. That the birthday boy should consume this icon of his own body might seem strange at first, until one recalls the prayer, “Thine own of Thine own,” which the priest declares before God during the consecration of the host.

Of course, rituals run so deep in our blood that most Americans have never noticed the candles, the hymns, the prayers, the consecration, the procession, the symbolic death, and ceremonial sharing of flesh— all the makings of a traditional Eucharistic worship service— which are now rather obviously displayed in the most unassuming of ceremonies: the consumption of birthday cake.  

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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