All around the world, countries and cultures have different ways of celebrating important milestones and life events, such as birthdays. In some countries, birthdays are regular events—marked with just a simple meal among family members—while in others, certain birthdays are more memorable and have specific traditions attached to them.
In the Philippines, birthdays are usually grand affairs, especially for children. As they get older, parties may not be as extravagant as the celebration they had in their younger years, but many people still consider birthdays special events.
A child’s first birthday celebration is often a highly anticipated, most awaited celebration for first-time parents. If the child is the first grandchild for either or both sides of the family, the party is sometimes even bigger.
During a child’s first birthday, the parents usually invite their relatives, close friends, co-workers, and other people. Some of these are the child’s godparents, also known as ninong (for men) and ninang (for women). People bring gifts for the child, adults and children play various games, and food is served for all the guests. Some parents choose to have a simple celebration at home or a grander one in a restaurant or event venue.
Like the first birthday, the seventh birthday is another special tradition in the Philippines. Seventh birthdays hold a lot of significance and symbolism. It is a time of new beginnings for toddlers as they are now old enough to understand right from wrong and the consequences of their actions. A child’s seventh birthday also marks their transition from pre-school to primary.
During the child’s seventh birthday, parents invite relatives, friends, and the child’s godparents, just like they do during the child’s first birthday. Some symbols are presented to the child, such as seven gifts, seven prayers, seven wishes, and so on.
A girl’s 18th birthday and a boy’s 21st birthday are also significant milestones as they mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
The 18th birthday of a girl is also called a debut. Parents throw lavish parties to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event. A debut is usually held in a grand venue, and all the guests come in formal attire. The debutante also receives symbolic gifts, such as the following:
While 21 is a significant age for boys, and they also celebrate it, families don’t usually throw lavish parties like they do with girls. Boys will usually celebrate among close friends, cousins, and schoolmates.
In Asia, China is another country with significant milestones for birthdays, especially the hundredth day of a newborn child.
While babies are worth celebrating and definitely have plenty of milestones (first week, first month, first words, etc.), in China, there is no milestone more significant than when they reach their first 100 days. A baby’s first 100 days mark the end of the most vulnerable period for babies and mothers. It celebrates the newborn and signifies the end of confinement.
Traditionally, the 100-day celebration featured symbolic gifts, gold jewelry, and red envelopes containing money (hongbao or angpao) for the infant. Family members would say their wishes for the child. Sometimes, the parents would offer auspicious food and prayer for their ancestors. In some cases, the 100-day celebration is when parents have their baby's hair cut for the first time, and their Chinese name is announced. Parents would distribute red eggs (symbolizing fertility) and pickled ginger to guests.
These days, however, celebrations tend to be a bit more modern, with the couple deciding what they want for their party and how they want to celebrate. Some incorporate age-old customs, while others add a modern twist to the celebration.
In North and South America, certain birthday celebrations are special, too.
The 16th birthday, also known as “Sweet 16” is a coming-of-age party celebrated when a child turns 16 in several parts of Canada and the United States. Sweet 16 parties are usually grand affairs and involve friends, family, and often a limousine. The celebrant will often wear a special dress or suit. The most popular activities during a Sweet 16 Party are a speech by the celebrant, a special dance between the celebrant and her father, formal introductions, and cutting the cake.
While girls usually have Sweet 16 parties, boys can have parties when they turn 16 years old, too. In some places, families throw large celebrations and invite relatives and friends, while the event is a little more like a typical occurrence for others.
A quinceañera is widely celebrated in Mexico and several parts of Latin America. It is a girl's 15th birthday celebration, marking the transition from childhood to womanhood.
Historically, before turning 15 years old, girls were taught how to cook, weave, and do other household chores by the older women in the community. This training was a way for them to learn about their future roles as wives. During a girl’s quinceañera celebration, her father would present her to potential suitors.
At the quinceañera, young men known as “chambelanes” (chamberlains) escort the celebrant and perform a choreographed dance with her. A girl is also presented with al úlitima muñeca meaning “the last doll” because she will be too old to play with dolls upon turning fifteen. The ritual involves passing that doll to a younger sister or cousin.
A girl also gets a bouquet—her very first flowers as a young woman—and fifteen piñatas (decorated animals made of paper mache, pottery, or cloth and stuffed with toys and candy) to signify each year of her life.
Europe has its share of fun and unique traditions during birthdays. In England and Ireland, parents give their children keys to the house when they turn 21. In France, it is customary to bake a King’s Cake on the birthday of a loved one. Italy has a similar tradition with their "Torta di Compleanno." The Netherlands, however, has a unique way of celebrating.
While no one knows when or how the 21-Dinner tradition began, it is vastly popular among students and young people these days. The 21-Dinner is a special evening celebrating the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It is also a time to recount funny (and perhaps even embarrassing) stories from the celebrant's high school and college years. Before, 21-Dinner celebrations were only done with friends from the same gender as the celebrant. These days, however, they extend to anyone.
During the 21-Dinner celebration, the celebrant usually invites family, and old and new friends. It is usually done at their parents' house, although some take it to the next level by renting out an event venue, having placement cards, and requiring the guests to dress up in formal attire.
People give emotional speeches or share embarrassing stories about the celebrant. Some read poems aloud or sing songs or give quizzes. Others bring scrapbooks and pictures—anything to praise or embarrass the birthday celebrant. The guests also give personalized, nostalgic, emotional, or even embarrassing gifts to present to the celebrant.
Whether you come from a country with a remarkable way of celebrating birthday milestones, remember you can always incorporate various traditions, as long as they’re meaningful to you and your loved ones. You don’t always have to follow customs, but give them a twist to make them your own.