Birthdays, rituals and self

By Charissa Dechène

I like parties. I like to tell stories to whomever wants to hear them and I like making food for people to eat. What I always find really interesting though, is the ritual we go through before and during a birthday party. Actually, this ritual is also being played out when we have visitors over if there is not a birthday. You might think when hearing the word ritual of ‘exotic’ places where indigenous people are engaged in ‘mystical’ activities. However, rituals can be found in every human society and have many explanations. In a structural functionalist way, ritual is construed as a means to maintain social order and the symbols used during rituals are reflections of that social order. In a structuralist view ritual is interpreted as a means to organize social order and as symbolic communication to constrain social behaviour. Taking these points of view, birthdays can be interpreted as a way to maintain the social order of a family (by having them get together a few times a year), but also to organize them. So, by looking at how people at a birthday party behave and (inter)act, you can get a lot of information about the way a family or a group of friends is organized. In my family, there are usually a few people who will help with the preparation of the food and setting the table, others help clean up after everyone is done eating and some will help getting everyone a drink. Others are there to make sure there are no awkward silences and that there are a few laughs.

The people who come over at birthdays are family and friends, people who have been in our lives for a long time and thus know us. At least enough to know that you may sometimes not have a clean and orderly household. That is why I find the rituals that occur in times of birthdays so very interesting. Birthday parties are a kind of a performance, a play in which actors have specific roles they play out and in which everyone is supposed to be at his or her best behaviour. The famous Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a theory about performances in everyday life in his book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959). When I first read this during my bachelors it opened my eyes to the way we present ourselves in everyday life. Of course what he wrote was all very logical, but I hadn’t thought about it like he wrote about it. We present ourselves the way we want to be perceived by others. There are many other social scientists who have explored the different ways in which we present ourselves in everyday life and its importance. For example, the German sociologist George Simmel even argued that the main purpose of fashion is to cultivate individuals and to explore their identity (1971). Moreover, Simmel argued that fashion changes so much as it does because it can only be considered fashionable if it is worn by a certain group of people, the elite. Thus fashion must change again when the trends are being copied and reproduced for mass production. However, I will continue talking about fashion and mass production in another blogpost.

With birthdays, we tend to present ourselves at our best behaviour in our own homes. We want ‘the other’ (the visitor who is not part of the household family) to see us as friendly, open and caring. Most of all, we want the other to see that our lives are in order which we tend to show by cleaning up the living room. Goffman calls this “presentational rituals” “acts through which the individual makes specific attestations to recipients concerning how he regards them and how he will treat them in the on-coming interaction” (Goffman 1969: 71) Which means that the behaviours we show are ceremonial indulgences that show that an individual is a well-demeaned person and deserving of the deference only other people can give. These interaction rituals are, according to Goffman, dependent on the reciprocal acts of demeanor and deference. Demeneanor is how the way a person behaves and dresses. Deference is the honor, dignity and respect one gets if well demeaned. If you are well behaved and dressed appropriately you allow others who are in our presence to do the same. So, if we look at birthdays and the guests who come into our home to celebrate this life-event, you expect the same behaviour of your guests as how we are behaving towards them.

Before a birthday party starts the ritual often begins with getting groceries. Usually we don’t always necessarily have everything of A-brands, however with birthdays we tend to buy them to show that we can afford them. goes for snacks, usually there are not a lot of snacks in our household, but because it is a birthday party a ton of snacks are socially ‘allowed’ and one can indulge in foods they do not eat in their everyday lives.
Goffman makes the distinction between front and backstage, just as in theatrical performances, in our everyday life events. The front is where the individual performs in front of the audience, in which s/he can highlight the positive aspects of the imagined self. Here you put on your behaviour and show the world how you want to be seen. Buying different brands of soda and providing a variety of snacks is also a part of the front, they are acting as props to enhance the performance of the imagined self of the host. The back stage is where the individual can be themselves without social limitations. For example, in the back stage one can eat a whole bag of crips without embarrassment or a ‘danger’ of rejection by others.
Goffman also argued that the setting is of importance by creating the performance. The setting must be an agreed upon definition of the situation in order to allow the interaction between the actors in it. A birthday is a clearly agreed upon social situation. In the Netherlands the host of the party is usually the one who is having the birthday. The visitors come at different times and usually sit in a circle so that everyone can interact with each other and no one is left out. However, sometimes the group is divided because some are sitting outside. The person who has his/ her birthday provides beverages and food and makes sure s/he talks to everyone at the party. The birthday party can now be analysed as a performance in which the role of the one who is celebrating the fact that s/he is a year older is appearing as a host, making sure everyone is satisfied and having fun. Which is, when you come to think about it, quite strange taking into account all the people come to visit to celebrate the life of the host. The role of the birthday person appears to be that of a host, entertaining his/ her guests, while it is usually thought of that the person who is celebrating his/ her birthday should be pampered.

Moreover, birthdays are a celebration of a life and the expectation of many returns in which you celebrate with the people who you love and care for. However, birthdays are also a symbolic system in which the reciprocal acts of giving gifts comes to light. The famous sociologist Marcel Mauss talks in his classic work The Gift (1954) that the exchange of gifts is never free. An example my teacher gave was the gift of coffee to friends. If you receive a cup of coffee from a friend as a gift, you are actually socially obliged to give your friend a coffee the next time. Even though this is an unwritten rule, one may feel obliged to do so. As goes with birthdays, usually if you receive a gift you will feel obliged to return a gift of similar value to whomever gave you the gift. But, the reciprocal exchange of gifts can also be extended to your presence at a birthday party. If you attend a birthday you expect that person to also attend your birthday party and in turn, that person would feel obliged to attend.

In conclusion, birthdays can be seen as opportunities in which an individual is given a stage to explore their identity in the interaction of others. Birthdays can also be viewed as a symbolic ritual in which the socially organized structures of a family or a group of friends can be analysed and uncovered. Birthdays are usually ‘just’ fun, but when you look at them in a sociological or anthropological manner, they represent much more. They contain a lot of symbolic interactions and social structures which are very interesting to explore in your own family or group of friends. And if it is your birthday today: Happy Birthday to you!

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