TT: Happy! Happy! Clap! Clap!

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to find out why I like spice a lot more than sugar – and for a few thoughts on pink.  Then join me and Alan as we take a look at birthday customs.  We invite you to share a few, too!

JANE: So, Alan, you promised to tell me about particularly British birthday

Birthday Cards


ALAN: I presume that you sing “Happy birthday to you…”? Well, in 1960s England there was a record request programme on the radio which was specifically for children and whenever a birthday request was received the DJ would play a jingle of a rather adenoidal child singing a subtly changed lyric:

Happy birthday to you
Squashed tomatoes and stew
Bread and butter in the gutter
Happy birthday to you

This was enormously popular and I will swear that a whole generation of children grew up quite ignorant of the proper words.

JANE: Here the traditional “Happy Birthday” song took a blow some years ago.  This is the story as I heard it.

A number of chain restaurants were making quite a big thing out of birthday celebrations which would often include a free slice of cake for the lucky guest.  In order to get this, however, the guest had to submit to the indignity of a large chuck of the wait-staff gathering to sing “Happy Birthday to You,” loudly and, in the best Harry Potter tradition, off-key.

This was ruled as “for profit” and a lawsuit was brought by the owners of the song, insisting they were entitled to compensation.  So the restaurants wrote their own, usually horrible, songs.  The one I really hated began with “Happy!  Happy!”  followed by loud, synchronized clapping.  Probably the only good thing about this was that since it was chanted, rather than sung, it wasn’t as likely to be off key.

Even this seems to have died out, so those of us who aren’t celebrating birthdays don’t need to suffer.

ALAN: I once came across a birthday card much decorated with birds, pairs of sheep and ethereal looking hippopotami. The lyric inside read:

Hippo birdy two ewe…

JANE: Yes.  That originated (I believe) with the artist Sandra Boynton.  I like her more whimsical work quite a lot.  I had a tee-shirt that depicted a very serious rodent wearing a curled wig playing a piano.  The slogan read “Gopher Baroque.”

I still have a coffee mug my sister Susan gave me back when I was teaching that shows why “The Little Joys of Teaching are Without Number.”  It reminds me why I’m happy to be struggling to make a living as a writer.

But I have taken us off topic.  Tell me about British Birthday Cake.

ALAN: No birthday would be complete without cake. But this caused my mother enormous problems because, as a child, I had a great intolerance for eggs. The slightest trace of egg in anything I ate would make me ill for hours.  These days I can eat them if they are well-diluted with other things so cake is back on the menu. However I don’t regard it as much of a treat.

My mother solved the egg problem by digging out her wartime recipes. Many basic foodstuffs were unobtainable or severely rationed during the war and much ingenuity went into  devising substitutes. Apparently you *can* make cake without eggs (I have no idea how), though it sits rather heavily in the tummy.

But tradition and my parents insisted that there must be cake, with a candle for every year on it. I was utterly hopeless at blowing the candles out so I never got any wishes granted. What a shame.

JANE: Well, at least you never had to try and blow out an entire doll!  One year my mom carefully made me a cake that looked like a princess in a big skirt.  There was a doll in the center and her hair caught fire…  I can still remember the weird smell of synthetic hair and burning sugar.

ALAN: That sounds like fun!

JANE: I guess every family has personal twists to the celebration.  My brother and I have the same birthday.  No.  We’re not twins.  We just have the same birthday.  My parents did somersaults to make sure neither of us felt cheated.  On alternating years, one of us would have a “kids” party, while the other got to invite the grown-up friends.

My sisters’ birthdays were exactly a month apart, so they got the same arrangement.  It worked.

ALAN: Birthdays that are so close together can cause problems. My mother’s and father’s birthdays were 11th and 13th November respectively, closely followed by Christmas. Therefore, I used to have a huge financial crisis at the end of every year. After my parents died I got quite nostalgic over my missing annual financial crisis so when I learned that Robin’s birthday was 17th November I absolutely *had* to marry her.

JANE: July was Parents’ Month in our house.  Both birthdays and their anniversary.  I was horrible about getting the dates right.  My dad’s birthday was my particular short-coming.  I’d send a card, but then call on what I thought was the date.  Usually, I was wrong, but Dad seemed amused.

ALAN: Sometimes birthdays clash with other celebrations. My mother’s birthday (11th November) is also Armistice Day. Robin’s father’s birthday is Christmas and when he was small he bitterly resented the fact that he only got one set of presents. So now he celebrates a half-birthday in June so that he gets two sets of presents, just like everybody else.

JANE: I like how Robin’s father handles that.  A couple of my nieces and nephews suffer from a similar conflict.  I wonder if they’d like the change?

Birthday meals in my food-oriented family were always a big thing.  The birthday child chose the menu.  One year, when my brother was about six, he decided he wanted hotdogs and snails.  (My mother never called things by fancy foreign terms.  We ate snails and squid – not escargots and calamari .)  My mother bravely built a menu around this request.

ALAN: The best birthday party I’ve ever been to was for Robin’s niece. She was 5 years old and her mother had hired the school hall and a children’s entertainer. So the hall was full of sticky, shrieking children having enormous, but well supervised, fun while the adults congregated in a side room and sipped champagne. That’s the way to do it!

JANE:  Sounds a bit overwhelming, but then I wouldn’t be drinking  champagne.

ALAN: To each their own.   Perhaps our readers could tell us how they celebrate birthdays in their families…


3 Responses to “TT: Happy! Happy! Clap! Clap!”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    You know, I’ve always wanted to make a wacky cake (recipe here). It’s an eggless WWII recipe that gets its leavening from that old children’s “chemistry” experiment, baking soda and vinegar. There’s a reason you mix it in the baking pan, and only after the oven is hot.

    Our birthday cake is angel food, which I’m afraid Alan wouldn’t like, since it’s mostly egg white. My birthday is coming up soon, and we’ll celebrate at my uncle’s house by picking his absolutely wonderful oranges. He’s got a little old orange tree that produces thousands of absolutely wonderful mandarin oranges between Thanksgiving and New Years.

    • janelindskold Says:

      What’s also fun is when birthday rituals get established for adults as well.

      Jim always takes me to the State Fair, for example. We used to buy plants for our garden on his birthday, until our favorite greenhouse closed.

  2. Sean Says:

    My birthday is in June and occasionally lands the same day as fathers day. My sister and one of my sons have birthdays around the same time as well. The only time I was able to convice my wife to combine the celebrations was when we held a family reunion at the same time.

    Like Jane’s family, I give my children birthday parties on alternate years for much the same reason. Two of alternating children have birthdays in October, with one being born the day before Halloween. As a result every year we have a Costume/Halloween birthday party.

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