Grade Level: 2nd-4th

Author: Sara Couch


Celebrating birthdays is a very old custom. Ancient people did not know the exact day of their birth, yet measured time by using the moon and the seasons. As humans began to learn more about the earth's natural time gage, calendars were developed. Calendars made it easy for people to keep track of and celebrate important events each year. Birthdays were some of the special events that people noted on their calendars.

Many of the symbols that we associate with birthdays had their roots hundreds of years ago. There are a few explanations as to why we have birthday cakes. Some say it is because the Greeks used to take cakes to the temple of the goddess of the moon, Artemis. They took her round cakes to represent the full moon. Another view is that the tradition of the birthday cake started in Germany. A bread was made in the shape of the baby Jesus's swaddling clothes. Geburtstagorten is another type of German cake that was said to have been used for birthdays. It was a layered cake that was much sweeter than the bread type cake.

Another symbol that is closely tied to the birthday cake is the custom of putting candles on the cake. The Greek people who took their cakes to Artemis placed candles on the cake because it made the cake look as if it was glowing like the moon (Gibbons, 1986). The Germans were known as good candle makers and started to make small candles for their cakes. Some people say that the candles were put on for religious reasons. Some Germans place a big candle in the center of the cake to symbolize the "light of life" (Corwin, 1986). Others believed that the smoke from fires would take their wishes up to heaven. Today many people make silent wishes as they blow out their candles. They believe that blowing out all the candles in one breath will bring good luck.

A gathering or party is usually held so that the birthday person can have their cake and blow out the candles. The very earliest parties were held because people thought that evil spirits would visit them on their birthdays. They stuck close to their friends and family so that the evil spirits would not bother them. Later on parties were gatherings where friends and family members would give gifts or flowers to the person having the birthday. Today lots of birthday parties are for fun. If people cannot visit someone on their birthday they often send them a birthday card. The tradition of sending birthday cards was started in England about 100 years ago (Motomora, 1989).

Many birthday traditions deal with luck. A good luck birthstone, good luck flower, and a good luck color have been assigned to each month of the year. Birthday presents dealing with these good luck symbols are often given as gifts (see Appendix).

The common birthday symbols have been taken from numerous countries. Yet, each country still has custom and traditions unique to themselves. Some countries have uncommon customs that are very different from the current American view of birthdays. Many birthday celebrations are centered around religious ceremonies or themes. Each country, people, and region have their own set of customs. The following are examples of only a few types of celebrations.

Japanese children use to all celebrate their birthdays on January first. An individual would celebrate their birthday on January first if there birthday was February 19th, October 31st, or any other day of the year. Today most Japanese children celebrate their birthdays on their true birthdays.

In Korea one of the most important birthdays is a child's first birthday. The children are dressed in special clothes and are taken in front of a large gathering of friends and family members. There is a big feast and the guests leave money for the new one-year old child. The child's future is told by the items the birthday child picks up.

Hindu children only celebrate their birthdays until they are 16 years old. Their birthday is very religious. They take flowers to the temple and the child receives a blessing from a priest. The birthday child does not even have to go to school on their birthday.

Many of the common birthday symbols come from Germany. The children in Germany have birthday cakes, parties, and blow out candles. However children may celebrate their birthdays differently depending upon which part of Germany they live in. The parties in south Germany are usually quiet celebrations where the child is the center of attention for the day.

In many countries children are named after saints. In these countries the birthday celebration usually comes on the name day, the feast of the child's patron saint (Price,1969). On this special day the focus should first be on the saint and then on the child. Some children get to celebrate on name day and on their own birthday.

Children in Mexico have birthday customs that have been around for centuries. Most birthday parties in Mexico include a pinata. A pinata is a large paper-mache object that is shaped like something appealing and covered with colorful paper. The pinata is filled with candy and treats. Pinatas are often shaped like animals or stars. The pinata is hung by a rope and blindfolded children take turns hitting the pinata with a stick. When they break the pinata all the goodies come out. This tradition is over 300 years old.

Many more birthday traditions can be found all over the world. The way people celebrate their birthday is often a combination of old and new traditions. Everyone has a birthday and it is a special day for them.


Corwin, J. H. (1986). Birthday Fun. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gibbons, G. (1986). Happy Birthday. New York: Scholastic.

Motomora, M. (1989). Happy Birthday! Milwaukee, WI: Raintree Publishers.

Price, C. (1969). Happy Days. New York: United States Committee For UNICEF.

(no author) (1989). Children's Songbook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. S.L.C., UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


- Students will recognize that different countries and people have unique birthday celebrations.

- Students will describe a birthday tradition that is significant to them.

- Students will create a booklet about their own birthday including personal family traditions, what makes their day special, and other personal information.

-Students will have an increased sense of self-worth.

Time Allotment: About 5 class periods.

Resources Needed:

Book making materials

World map

Chart paper (Carousel)

Colored paper (for candle)

Calendar(s) (one showing all 12 months at once and if possible more for children to work with)



A. Introduction/Anticipatory Set:

Display the 12 month calendar. Have each student identify when their birthday is. Make sure they know the date of their birthday and have them find it on a calendar. Have the students write their name and birth date on a segment of a giant paper candle (have the students with the closest upcoming birthdays at the top of the candle). Tell the students that the class candle is going to burn until each child's birthday has passed and/or been recognized. When a childís birthday is celebrated cut their segment off the candle and move the flame down. This will help make each childís birthday equally important and carry the theme through out the year on a personal level.

B. Carousel (Brainstorming)

Divide children into four groups. Give each group a different colored marker. Hang a large piece of chart paper in four corners of the classroom. Have the groups of students go around to each of the four corners: 1-birthday symbols (list them and if possible tell the origin) 2-reasons to celebrate birthdays 3-birthday customs in/from other countries 4-famous birthdays. Instruct the groups to brainstorm and write down as many ideas as possible at each station. An idea should only be put on the same paper one time. The teacher will monitor this activity and signal the groups to move to the next station. Adjust the groups' time at each station as needed. Assess students prior knowledge given their responses. Display the charts so that all students can see all the ideas. Discuss what is on the charts.

C. Mini-Lecture & Song

Begin by discussing the various birthday symbols (candles, cakes, etc.). Tell the students where the symbols came from and what it stands for. Be sure to include instruction on good luck symbols. Next make the point that not all countries use the same symbols or have the same birthday traditions. Discuss the birthday customs of different cultures. Talk about how the traditions vary between cultures, nations, groups, etc. (see background information). Teach the song, Feliz Cumpleanos, by Maurine Benson Ozment (see Appendix).

D. Concept Development

Review the concept that everyone has different traditions. Discuss what a tradition is. Share a favorite birthday tradition of yours with the class. (e.g., It has been a tradition that on every birthday we receive a silver dollar from my grandfather for each year of out age. Another birthday tradition in our family involves placing a ring from your own finger around one of the candles on the birthday cake and making a wish. If the birthday child blows out the candle with your ring around it then your wish will come true).

E. Personal Research & Sharing

Have the students think of a tradition that is done on birthdays at their house. If possible have them find out where the tradition came from and how it got started. You may want to send a note home to the parents explaining this step (see Appendix).

When the research has been completed let the students share their traditions. Divide the students into groups of four or smaller. Have each student share their family birthday tradition with the others in the group.

F. Hands-on (Book making)

Have students begin to make their own personal birthday books. Title the book, My Special Birthday, let the students fill in their name and birth date on the front cover. Have the students write about and draw a picture of their family birthday tradition. The number of pages needed will vary with individual students. Instruct each student to make a page showing their good luck birthstone, good luck flower, and good luck color (see Appendix).

(G). Internet Research

The next page(s) will include information about someone who shares the same birthday (month and day) as the child. Have the students log on to the following location, This is an address where students can enter their birth date and a list of famous people who share the same birth date will appear. Tell the student to pick one person and find out a little more about them.

Additional pages may be added to the books as desired. For examples: a page with information about when they were born (Who was President? How much did a loaf of bread cost? What music was in? What was the #1 movie?) or a page from their parents describing the day they were born.

Compile the students books and bind them.

H. Sharing and Discussion

Let the students share their personal birthday books with the class. Discuss as necessary. Ask students what they learned about birthdays and about birthdays in other cultures

Additional Activities: (Ideas for integrating the mini-unit)

-Dip Candles [science & history (it is how candles used to be made)].

-Birthday Math (figure out how much older/younger the famous person born on their birthday is. Also figure out how much older they are compared to sisters, brothers, friends, etc.

-Birthday Calculator (there is an address on the Internet that will let students figure out how many total days, months, seconds they have lived etc.).

-Find the countries they are studying on a world map (geography).

-Make a pinata (art, history).

-Bake a cake (science, math).

-Write about their best birthday ever (what is was like or what they would wish for).


Carousel papers will be used as a pre-assessment to see how much they know.

The content of the studentsí personal birthday booklets will be assessed.

The students sharing of their tradition and booklet will be assessed.

Answers given in response to discussion questions will be assessed.





Month / Color / Flower /Birthstone

January /White /Carnation /Garnet

February /Dark Blue /Violet /Amethyst

March /Silver /Jonquil /Aquamarine

April /Yellow /Sweet Pea /Diamond

May /Lilac /Lily of the Valley /Emerald

June /Pink /Rose /Pearl

July /Sky Blue /Larkspur /Ruby

August /Dark Green /Gladiola /Peridot

September /Gold /Aster /Sapphire

October /Brown /Calendula /Opal

November /Purple /Chrysanthemum /Topaz

December /Red /Narcissus /Turquoise

(Gibbons, 1986)

Feliz Cumpleanos* - Maurine Benson Ozment


"Feliz Cumpleanos," That's how they say it in Spain.

"Frohlicher Geburtstag," In German it means the same.

"Gratulerer med magen," Norwegians say it too.

But anyway you say it, It means "Happy Birthday to you!"

They say in Samoa, "Manuia lou aso fanau."

"Tanjobi omedeto," The Japanese say, and bow.

"Sangilulchíukhahamnida," Koreans say it too.

But anyway you say it, It means "Happy Birthday to you!"


*This song (words and music) can be found on page 282 of the Children's Songbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Dear Parents,

Our theme this week is "Birthdays." We have been talking about birthday symbols and birthday traditions. We have discussed customs from America as well as customs from various other countries. Your child is to think of and/or research a tradition your family does on birthdays. Your child will be sharing this tradition with their peers as well as putting it in a special birthday book about themselves. Please take a moment to talk with your child about your family traditions. Any information on the history of the tradition would be especially interesting and appreciated. This assignment is due __________________. Thank you.



Sara Couch


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