How Do You Know It’s Your Birthday?

After watching Tangled and working on Mara’s story, I’ve been thinking a lot about how a person knows their birthday.  It seems so natural to us that someone would know the date of their birth, but there are lots of factors that actually contribute to that knowledge.

Think about it.  There are three major things that need to happen for your birthdate to really stick as important information.

1. You have to use a calendar.  This sounds ridiculous, right?  Everybody uses a calendar.  Or do they?  What if the day of the week, or the number of the day, didn’t matter?  What if every day was the same in your culture, if only big things like full moons or the changes of seasons were really distinct enough to register?  If a group of people doesn’t divide time into an equivalent of months and years, then how would someone be able to pinpoint the exact anniversary of the day they were born?

2. Someone has to tell you.  You weren’t able to tell time when you were born, so someone (usually a family member) had to witness your birth, record the date, and then share that information with you when you were old enough to get it.  This is where my train of thought started, because Mara was sold to a slave trader when she was born.  Normally, that would put her in a situation that negates all of the above; no one is going to record the date and mark it later.  Fortunately, she’s born during a lunar eclipse, giving her a nickname that has to be explained, and so she does have knowledge of when she was born, if not the exact date at first.

3. You have to use it for something.  We celebrate birthdays, and write them down on licenses and applications, and generally use birthdate as part of our identification and identity.  This is the big reason why you can just spout off a date when someone asks, and why that little box on the calendar looms large.  You use it, so it’s important enough to remember.  This is the one that makes Tangled feel just a bit off every time I watch it.  Rapunzel’s captor blows off her birthday as no big deal, with a “Your birthday was last year” response.  If her “mom” doesn’t celebrate it or mark it, we get a bit of the previous issue and a lot of this one.  I don’t know how Rapunzel knows when her birthday is – we’ll have to assume she was told at some point – but we do know why the date is important to her: the floating lanterns that she sees every year.

This train of thought can also lead into the many different ways you can develop a fantasy culture, because how a group of people denotes age or marks time can be a fun way to give the reader a sense of difference from their own lives.  Perhaps I’ll chase this path tomorrow!


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. deshipley
    Feb 23, 2013 @ 19:11:22

    I’ve questioned myself why Rapunzel’s captor told her when her birthday was. I mean, if she’s gone to all this trouble to conceal Rapunzel’s identity from her, why give her that clue? Why tie in her birthday to that special yearly event that could potentially play a part in unraveling the kingdom’s big mystery?

    The best explanation I can come up with off the top of my head: Once upon a time, one of the books little Rapunzel reads to keep herself entertained mentions birthdays, prompting the young girl to ask when her own birthday is. Her captor couldn’t care less and tells Rapunzel she can pick one herself so, naturally enough, Rapunzel picks the day that she views as most special — the day she gets to watch that yearly event from her window. The End.

    That’s my story. I wonder what Disney’s would be, if we asked? (:


  2. Connor Rickett
    Feb 24, 2013 @ 16:33:21

    That’s an interesting train of thought. I haven’t seen the movie, but I like the way you’ve picked apart the prerequisites to understanding birthday. I think the basic idea that building a fantasy world requires us to challenge assumptions is absolutely true, and goes beyond things like measuring time; our lives are full of things we know because we’re assaulted by them daily, and so rarely do we give ourselves cause to question why. A lot of good fantasy and speculative fiction is not just supported by but centered on the challenging of basic assumptions.


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