Sunday, 17 November 2013

Elizabethan Birthdays

It's possible William Shakespeare may have died on his birthday in 1616.
Today is my birthday!

In Tudor times, one of my favourite historical periods, people did not tend to celebrate birthdays in any overt way. They did not say, 'Happy Birthday!' to each other, they did not present gifts, they did not appear to have a special meal associated with the day, nor even a gathering of friends and family to mark an important birthday like 'coming of age'.

Famously, William Shakespeare appears to have died on his 52nd birthday, 23rd April 1616. But we cannot say for sure if he died quietly in his bed or suffered a heart attack while performing an ill-advised jig at a riotous birthday party!

This may seem strange to us, when birthdays have become such commercial - and often very expensive - family events for us in the twenty-first century. But historians have found no evidence to suggest that gifts were given in Tudor times as birthday presents, even among noble families and royalty - though often lavish gifts were exchanged by all ranks of society at New Year.

"Here's my gift, sire ... My own severed head!"
This giving of gifts at New Year is well-documented by historians, especially at the royal court, where gifts to - and from - Queen Elizabeth, for instance, were meticulously noted down in an annual list. It is a tradition also mentioned in the medieval epic poem Gawain and the Green Knight, where the legendary King Arthur and his noble courtiers exchanged delightful gifts, kisses and songs on New Year's Day - suggesting that such exchanges were common in the real world of the poet too. It was not until much later that gifts began to be given at Christmas instead, when this New Year tradition fell away, perhaps due to the change in date when New Year was celebrated.

So it's possible some Tudors celebrated birthdays. It's just we have no record of what they might have done. Perhaps a nice meal in the evening, or a sing-song, or just a quiet acknowledgement that another year had gone by. Perhaps they thought it bad luck to point out someone's birthday! Who knows?

Personally, I shall be hoping for a more modern celebration of my birthday today, as it would be rather dreary not to get any gifts at all!

1 comment:

  1. I must have cake or some sweet on my birthday complete with a candle so I can make a wish. I am almost fanatical about this point. Gifts are lovely, but a sweet thought or a get together for lunch is almost always more welcomed now as I'm in my read it, eat it, wear it, decluttering phase of life. Hope you are spoiled rotten today and have a lovely birthday! xx

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