My family celebrates January birthdays all at once. Our celebrations vary by tradition, whose birthday it is, their personality, age and stage in life. We have a one-month old, a 35-year-old, two in our sixties, and one babe born in a manger some 2000 years ago—all being celebrated with eight other Gruens at one time and place, Jan. 18-20, in Minneapolis.
I ask one and all: What’s in a birthday—that we should celebrate it annually, or a month after the fact, or all month long, or not at all?
Birthdays come around once a year, like it or not. Some celebrants deny getting older—even to themselves, the mirror, and the doctor. But I say that it’s not how old you are, but how you are old. Age is just a number, but aging is an attitude. Aging is a transition, and transitions involve letting go of the past—the younger you—especially if you are ever to accept the new “older you.” The “younger you” could golf your age, but no longer; you don’t like this loss, so you fight it. Or you see someone you know in the hospital or in the obits, and you wonder with fear, “Am I next?” Birthdays have a way of reminding us that we are mortal.
As for month-long birthday celebrations or celebrating a birthday well after the fact, I simply remind you of Advent and Epiphany. Is not the Advent of the Christ Child a string of birthday celebrations each Sunday in December—complete with candle-lighting each week, celebrating Hope, Peace, Joy and Love?
In helping everyone in my church celebrate Christmas “on time,” I put off the Gruen family Christmas by one month. But I’m not alone celebrating Christmas in January. In delaying a month, we have company: The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Jesus’ birthday 12 days after Westerners traditionally do. Some scholars think the “Magi from the East” may have taken even longer, up to three months, to get to the Bethlehem baby shower, especially if they came from as far east as India. So why not January 18, 19 or 20 in my case?
As for how we celebrate birthdays, that varies by person and the relationship. Today, Jan. 12, is my wife’s birthday. And Sue wants the celebration to be this very day—a Saturday, so quite doable. I will reprise a love letter I once wrote to her on another happy occasion, and I will take her to some dinner and theatre.
At month’s end is my birthday, but I take the whole month to celebrate variously: via weekly blogs such as this one; through annual reports reflecting on the year past; with family and friends for meals out—I got five such dinner dates already lined up—and by setting goals for transitions ahead and new beginnings.
The first of the month marked not just the beginning of a new year, but my son Mark’s entrance into this world 35 years ago. This year, he lets that day pass as just an arbitrary day on the calendar. It’s no big deal—no more significant than the day before or day after. Friends and family will try to make something more of it.
Whereas I take all month to celebrate the singular day of my birth 69 years ago, the youngest in our Gruen family, Josephine, celebrates her one-month birthday on Jan. 20. At that tender age, each month is a milestone. After many months, perhaps years, of trying and coming up empty, of waiting and praying, our daughter-in-law Molly finally pushes into the world Josephine, who stretches everyone in new ways. That was Dec. 20 and every day since. So fragile, so beautiful—a pregnancy and delivery with creative agency and made in the image of God. When I stare into the eyes of our newborn grandchild next weekend, I will come face to face with a fragile human life and a wonderful divine mystery—all at once.
That’s what’s in a birthday. Whether celebrated annually—a month after the fact, all month long, or not at all—that is beside the point. The point is to live that day full of laughter and love. It beats the alternative.