Philosophers seldom write about the ordinary things in life, which are nevertheless meaningful from a philosophical point of view. When doing some research for my last blog I had to conclude that one of the few philosophers who writes about Christmas is Wittgenstein, but actually his remarks on Christmas are casual and they have hardly anything to do with its philosophical meaning. When you want to read about the meaning of our daily – often “banal” – activities, you get at sociologists like Michel de Certeau and Marc Augé. It’s true that the Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton writes about everyday themes like travelling or the news and what they mean for our art of living; themes that are more sociological than philosophical and that are avoided by most – but not all – other philosophers. But who writes philosophically about such an ordinary theme like birthdays?
In many countries outside the western world birthdays don’t count. They are not important and often ignored. Nowadays, dates of birth are registered everywhere, of course, but when people are asked how old they are, they often reckon only from the year they have been born. Whether they have passed already the date of birth at the moment they are asked for the age is not important for them. What’s more, for some people even the exact year of birth is not important. A vague indication of age suffices, as a person working with immigrants in the Netherlands told me.
How different it is in many western countries. It’s clear that I cannot speak here about all countries and cultures, but in countries like the USA, Germany and the Netherlands birthdays are really important. They are so important that you simply must celebrate them. The practice is, of course, that a substantial number of people doesn’t but also they do it in some way: If you don’t celebrate your birthday you must have an excuse why you don’t. It simply cannot be ignored, full stop.
How do people celebrate their birthdays? Preferably a birthday needs to be celebrated on the day itself, but when that isn’t practical or possible, usually it’s celebrated on a day in the weekend before or after the actual birthday. Then a party is held, big or small, the guests are treated, presents are given, and striking birthdays (like coming of age, or the 50th) are often celebrated in a special way, etc. I don’t need to go here into detail, since everybody knows. How interesting would it be to make a full philosophical study of this, for not everybody celebrates his or her birthday in the same standard way. Some people chose just the birthday for doing something special. They go to the theatre on that day. They make a long walk, alone or with others. Or they take a short holiday break, especially on striking birthdays, instead of giving a party (or they do both). And did you know that in the Netherlands on a birthday party you have to congratulate also the partner and family of the person whose birthday it is, and that the latter has to treat also his or her colleagues on his/her workplace?But when you become older? Most people tend to give less and less attention to their birthdays after a certain age. Their children and close family and friends come to congratulate them, they treat them to cakes, and some call them up if they cannot come, but that’s all. Not so Robert Marchand, a French cyclist. What was his greatest wish to do on his 103th birthday? To take his race bike and to climb the Col Robert Marchand in the Ardèche in his country (he himself lives near Paris). However, there were two problems: the weather was not really good on this 26 of November and actually he wanted to climb only slopes that are at least 15 degrees, and this one is 11 degrees. But okay, it was his birthday, and so he conquered the 10km climb in under an hour, and at the top he took a glass of Champagne. On his 104th birthday, he cycled some 20 km of a stage of the Tour the France cycle race of that year in the Ardèche. And he celebrated his 105th birthday a few weeks ago by cycling 26,927 km with friends from his cycling club. Why just this distance? Because it is the world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-100 age group. I suppose that I don’t need to tell you that the record is his (cycled on January 31, 2014). But the real way he’ll celebrate his 105th birthday has yet to come, on Jan. 4 next (see my blog next week). Should I still explain how philosophically meaningful birthdays are for understanding ways of life?