The Symbolism of Celebrations

We have had a week of celebrations in honour of my husband who reached one of the milestone birthdays ending in zero this week. Birthdays are just one of many anniversaries that provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the years that have gone before. In particular, the celebrations brought back the memories I have of special events Eugene and I enjoyed together.

Other than an excuse for indulging in many excesses associated with celebrations, I became curious as to why we mark certain events such as birthdays and who invented these festivities. In most legal systems age-specific milestones are celebrated as they afford us with particular rights and responsibilities. These may include becoming of age, which allows us to marry without parental consent, vote, buy or consume alcohol, obtain a driver’s licence and of particular importance, when we cease to be a child and enter the world of the adult. The latter carries with it all the joys and responsibilities that accompany being an adult.

There are many rituals that have evolved over the centuries to help us mark special events in our lives, such as births, birthdays, anniversaries, deaths, to name but a few. Both the celebrations and the associated rituals that accompany the celebrations vary from culture to culture. What most cultures have in common is to mark the birthdays of significant individuals, or the anniversaries of important events, by declaring them as public as holidays.

Research suggests it was the Egyptians who invented the party for the purpose of celebrating the coronation of the pharaohs, which was marked as the day when they turned into gods. We have the Greeks to thank for the candles on birthday cakes and the Romans for introducing birthday celebrations for the common man. I emphasise ‘man’ as women were not deemed important enough to have their birthdays marked with celebrations! It was only during the 12th century that celebrations for female birthdays were introduced.

Carnivals and parades are another form of ritual we engage in to celebrate particularly meaningful events. One significant annual celebration worth mentioning is that of Gay Pride events which take place in most major cities around the world during the month of June. It came about following the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 when gays fought back against police brutality. Celebrations such as these also act as poignant reminders that in many cultures, being different continues to be a reason and an excuse for persecution.

Most of us will be able to identify many happy memories we have shared with our loved ones, irrespective of the nature of the anniversary. It is true that some anniversaries or celebrations are tinged with sadness and loss. However, given time, we are often able to find the pearl or gift hidden in painful events. The festivities this week prompted me to remember and reflect on the celebrations Eugene and I have shared over the years. Eugene loved any opportunity for celebrating and I have precious and fond memories of a number of such occasions. In the book I make reference to one or two such very special birthday celebrations and the unexpected turn of events that followed.

I reflected on my memories of the last birthday celebrations we had for Eugene before he died. I was yet again reminded of his incredible ability to remain positive despite the very difficult circumstances that surrounded his last birthday. There were other celebrations during the period of his illness that were probably made more special given the fact that we knew we had limited time together.

One such special event that springs to mind was our wedding day and the mere fact that he was able to enjoy the day with us made it unforgettable. He had a period in hospital and his medical team was unsure whether he would be fit to travel. His resolve to share our important day with us gave him the energy and determination to be well enough to take part in a month of preparations with us. It was the last time he was able to travel long distance and our wedding anniversary is therefore made more special when I reflect on the memories we made during that month.

The anniversary of what would have been Eugene’s next birthday, namely the 19th of October, will be particularly significant for me this year as it is the deadline I have set myself for completing the first draft of the tribute to Eugene and Pieter. I view this not only as a very special, but possibly the final gift that I will be able give to Eugene in celebration of an exceptional life lived by the extraordinary person that was my beloved brother.

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