Birthdays and Age

After yesterday’s thoughts on why someone wouldn’t know the exact date of their birthday, I thought it would be interesting to consider some of the ways a person could still register age without a date.  Some of the concepts below are likely to be things that are used in real cultures, although I don’t know enough to tell you which ones.  (If you know, please share!)

The reason to consider age, rather than date, is related to the use of the information.  The exact date doesn’t matter to everyone, but a generalized concept of how old you are groups you with people of similar age and designates your role and responsibilities in society.

Without a calendar, people may not register an actual age.  Instead, they might simply divide their lives into segments that can be marked by physical changes.  When you hit puberty, you become an adult and take on a different role in society.  When a woman goes through menopause, her role changes again.  (With men, it is harder to mark an end to breeding/productivity, but perhaps there is a way to define that as well.)  This would be most likely seen in a smaller, simpler society, perhaps hunter-gatherers or early agrarian cultures.

Another option, with or without a calendar, is to count age by the year rather than the day.  In this model, there would be one day that everyone “ages up,” perhaps tied to a cultural holiday or a special day of its own.  Everyone who was born after the previous celebration but before the current one would be considered “one” and start counting there.  It would feel a bit odd to us, especially because we tend to count age in months up to 2 or 3 years old, but it ends up working the same as far as dividing kids into cohorts.  Really, a 13-month-old and a 22-month-old are both still “one” by the way we count birthdays; they just get to “two” on different days.

None of this helps people who don’t know their age because it wasn’t recorded or told to them.  Those folks just have to guess, and they can use the people around them to figure out their general age.  And really, if they live in a world where the exact date doesn’t matter, estimating is probably good enough.

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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!