Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Question from Liz - Celebrating birthdays

How did people in the Tudor/Elizabethan Eras celebrate birthdays? I would like to know about nobles and below, because I'm sure that the monarchs had elaborate celebrations. Would they have a cake with candles and singing?

Thanks everyone!


PhD Historian said...

What a fun question! Approaching it backwards, I can say that people in the Tudor era did not sing "Happy Birthday To You" since the song is only a little more than 100 years old. And it is very unlikely that they used birthday candles, since candles were an expensive luxury in that period. But did they celebrate birthdays in other ways? I have never run across any evidence of the giving of gifts on a person's birthday. I've looked through a very large number of jewelry inventories over the years, for example, and I've found lots of items of jewelry being given or received as gifts at the New Year (but not Christmas), and at a man or woman's marriage, but not in association with their birthday. I do not believe that even monarchs celebrated their birthdays in any appreciable way. Edward VI in his personal "Chronicle" makes absolutely no mention of his own birthday anniversaries in 1550, 1551, and 1552, though he does note celebrations at other times of the year associated with other events. When England was still Catholic, many people did observe the feast associated with the saint's day on which they were born, but the celebration was in remembrance of the saint, not their own birthday. On the whole, I have a general impression that birthdays in the Tudor period simply did not carry the personal importance that they do today and thus were probably observed with only minimal fanfare, if at all.

Foose said...

I think a person's actual birthday only had significance if he or she were of high rank, because then the astrologers could use it to cast a horoscope.

Possibly certain actual birthdates could be highlighted for propagandistic purposes -- some years ago it was suggested that Mary Stuart's true birthdate was December 7, but was officially recorded as December 8, because that was the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin and had significance for Catholics. Elizabeth I was born on the Eve of the Nativity of the Virgin, which fed into her public image as the Virgin Queen.

But I agree there is no mention of parties. Sometimes you see special foods mentioned in connection with saints' days, like "Kattern cakes" for St. Catherine's Day. I wonder what the custom was after the Reformation -- did people still celebrate on their saint's day?

Wee Kay said...

It should be noted, though, that in Margaret Hannay's biography of Mary Wroth, she reports: "On 18 October 1600 [Roland] Whyte came to Penshurst, no doubt along with other guests, to celebrate Mall's (Mary Wroth's) thirteenth birthday." (p. 77) What that celebration might entail, she doesn't report.