Flannery O’Connor was not one to mention her birthday. In the letters included in Habit of Being there are only two mentions of the day, and in those mentions, the statement has more to do with her age than with the celebration of the day. And she isn’t the only one. The idea of celebrating a birthday, or even marking your age is a relatively new concept. But since we recently observed her birthday let’s use this opportunity to talk about the history of the recording age, the history of celebrating birthdays, and what Flannery herself said about aging and her birthday.
So when did cultures even start recording age concretely? That’s a very interesting question. Recording sections of life were common, “before 1850 Americans had certain concepts about stages of life – youth, adulthood, old age – and about behaviors appropriate to such stages, but demarcations between stages were neither distinct nor universally recognized.”1 Mostly this lack of age demarcation comes from a specific source, the high mortality rate of children and young adults. From the number of childhood diseases to high deaths from infections, war and other conflicts, workplace accidents, and childbirth, mortality amongst populations meant that very few people reached an age that was considered elderly. And because of this, age was marked by life stages over a specific memory of years, “these first two and one-half centuries, shifts in an individual’s life course were marked by formal rites of passage…formal rites included the donning of long pants or a long skirt, rising from apprentice to journeyman status, and experiencing a religious conversion.”2 So by the time, Flannery was born age had only been recorded concretely for less than 100 years. Her birthday and age were carefully documented throughout her life, from her birth till her death. She also was aging through one of the major changes in society, just a little bit too old to experience the changes of the Post-War childhood with the expanding definition of a teenager and the new consumerism that defined a culture, and defined an era of birthdays.3 This odd placement in age may have added to her understanding, and lack of the interest in thinking of her age.
So, if age is a recent concept, what about celebrating birthdays? Would it surprise you if I said that birthdays were celebrated longer than we have been accurately recording ages? From records of civilizations, we know that the birthday was a part of the celebrations of the upper class from ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Egypt, and empires in the middle east, marking the birthdays of the ruler as an important holiday, something to be celebrated.4 However, many early Christians stopped birthday celebrations because they were “seen as privileging the individual over the humility and gratitude to God.”5 Add in the lack of recording of exact days of birth it made it hard for celebration of birthdays. As the traditions began to work their way back into culture in the Victorian period it created a dynamic issue. How did you deal with the issue of the morality of celebrating your own birthday? Many thought that birthdays and birthday parties were inherently selfish. Flannery’s own Catholic faith had an answer to this, saints’ days. “The key was to associate each potential birthday with an appropriate, often chastening pious thought, as well as a reminder of the saint whose feast day fell on the same date – make the occasion virtually a scriptural occasion.”6 This connected the birthday and the birthday celebration to God and the saints, which helped reduce the selfishness.
So what about Flannery? She was raised in the period after the tracking of ages, and after the reintroduction of the birthday party, but she does not seem to care about birthdays. The date is rarely mentioned in personal letters or journals. The only mentions of her birthday in Habit of Being are the following two quotes: “Well I thanks you for my birthday message. I am thirty-five years old and still have all my teeth,” and “Yesterday was my birthday and in the midst of it arrived a Warring Blendor, I am bowled over and under. You can only be the donor of the instrument which makes me speechless. Ah, now my jaw can rot at its leisure.”7 Both of these comments are revealing. She does not care about birthdays, but she does care about her health. Her jaw was causing her problems, and she did not want to lose her teeth. She also knew as her age increased she was borrowing time. Her father died at a young age, in his early forties, so as she aged and dealt with her lupus she was probably aware that every birthday and every year could be the last one. So ages and birthdays probably did not hold the same weight when you knew that every year was a year you borrowed.
We all approach birthdays in different ways. Some people adore the day, they make it last, and they want everyone to celebrate with them. Some find it tedious and want the day to pass just like any other. And some are like Flannery, who seemed to joke about her ills and age. From the remembrance of knowing an era that turned into our modern understanding of the age, and the developing idea of the self that allowed for the development of the modern birthday, humans have always had different ways of celebrating, and thinking of the passage of time. But I think that we can all agree that we can all come together, and wish Flannery O’Connor a happy 97th birthday.
- Howard P. Chudacoff, How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989) 19
- ibid 48
- Vyta Baselice, Dante Burrichter, and Peter N. Stearns, “Debating the Birthday: Innovation and Resistance in Celebrating Children,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 12, 2 (2019): 279
- ibid 265-5
- ibid 266
- ibid 274
- Flannery O’Connor, Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), 567; 638