(Mini Unit)

Grade Level: 3rd-4th

Author: Jennilyn Waite


Long ago, before early people had a way of marking time, little attention was paid to a

person's birthday. Even though everyone knew that people grew older, they had no way of

correctly keeping track of time. It wasn't until the early people learned more about how time

passed that they kept note about time changes and developed a calendar and began to celebrate

special events such as birthdays. When birthdays were first starting to be celebrated, they were

only held in honor of prominent men in a country. Unlike times of today, "common" people

(especially children) rarely celebrated their birthdays during the early days.

Today, birthdays are celebrated by young and old alike all around the world. Many

countries have different customs from ours for celebrating birthdays but at the same time there are a

lot that celebrate their birthdays in quite similar ways as we do. Some of the countries that are

very similar to The United States include Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Even though every country has their own special customs, they are not always the same for that

entire country. Customs within countries can be affected by things like language, religion,

geographic location, and economic status. No matter what the customs are, however, they are

always followed by the majority of the people in each country. For instance, not all children in the

U.S. have birthday parties, candles or birthday cakes, but the majority of them do.

In some countries, people celebrate what is called Saint's Day or Name Day. In these

countries, children usually celebrate their saints' name birthday rather than their own. When

children are born, parents in these countries name their child after a saint when he or she is

baptized. The saint then becomes the lifetime guardian of this child and in return, the child will

show honor to his/her saint by celebrating the day that is the saints sacred day.

Aside from the different customs around the world, the reasons why we celebrate birthdays

and the different symbols we use are very much the same to everyone. The reason why we have

birthday parties goes back to when people believed that good and evil spirits appeared when a child

was born and influenced that child for life. These people also believed that it was dangerous for a

person to have a change in his or her life. This led people to believe that birthdays were filled with

danger since each year marked a change in a person's life. These beliefs brought about the custom

of having birthday parties. They believed that surrounding the birthday person with friends, family

and good wishes would scare the evil spirits away. It was an especially good influence if the well-

wishers presented gifts along with their wishes. There would also be greater protection from the

evil spirits if the gifts and wishes were presented early in the day. Credit is given to the Germans

for starting celebrations of children's birthdays (kinderfeste).

We've all heard of putting candles on birthday cake, singing "Happy Birthday to You",

giving birthday cards, playing games and giving spankings, but how did all these things come

about? Who started them and where did they originate?

The custom of putting candles on birthday cake started in Germany about 200 years ago.

Germans were known to be excellent candle makers. One day they began to make little tiny

candles and started the tradition of putting the candles on the cake. It was also decided by these

candle makers that it meant good luck if you could blow out all the candles on your cake in one


About 100 years ago, Mildred Hill and Patty Hill of America wrote the song, "Happy

Birthday to You". This song was a huge hit all over the world. It is used in many different

countries with a few modifications.

Have you every received a card for your birthday? The custom of making birthday cards

started in England about 100 years ago. Now people everywhere make birthday cards and send

them to friends and family to wish them a happy birthday.

Birthday games became popular because people used to believe that it was like marking an

end and a new beginning (the end of the past year and beginning of the new year). Two very

popular games around the world include Pinning the Tail on the Donkey and breaking a Pinata.

Pinning the Tail on the Donkey became popular because of superstitions. When a blindfolded

player tries to pin the tail where it should go, they don't know if they will get it in the right spot or not.

People compared this game to life in that a person starts out each new year with a "blindfold" on

not knowing whether this coming year will be successful or not. Breaking the Pinata is a game that

came from Mexico about 300 hundred years ago. It was believed that you will have good luck if

you are the one to break the pinata.

Giving spankings to the birthday person is another type of game that started as a

superstition hundreds of years ago. Spankings are given one for each year and then one to grow

on, one to live on, one to eat on, one to be happy on, and finally one to get married on. It was

once considered bad luck if the birthday person wasn't spanked because the spanks were supposed

to "soften up the body for the tomb". No one is really sure if it was actually all just a joke but the

superstition is no longer believed.


Johnson, L. (1963). Happy Birthdays Round The World. Chicago, New York, San Francisco:

Rand-McNallay & Company.

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

Switzer, M. E. (1995). The Best of The Good Apple Newspaper. Good Apple.


Students will recognize that there are different birthday customs unique to many countries.

Students will recognize that there are different birthday customs unique to many families

within our own country.

Students will identify a birthday tradition that is unique to their family.

Students will recognize how certain symbols became part of birthday celebrations.

Students will demonstrate their own game that could be played at a birthday party.

Students will practice their research skills by studying "famous" birthdays and helping create a "Birthday

Hall of Fame".

Students will demonstrate their knowledge of different birthday customs by creating a birthday tall tale.

Time Allotment: Approximately 4-5 class periods.

Resources Needed:



A. Mini-Interview. Have the students conduct an interview with friends and neighbors to see

what traditions different people have when celebrating their birthdays in the United States

(3-5 interviews each will work best for this activity). Tell students they may interview

only one of their own family members (immediate and extended), as they probably all

celebrate in the same way. Ask students to bring their surveys back to class and give each

student an opportunity to share their results. List all the different traditions on the board as

they are presented. Discuss with students how there are many different customs that some

families celebrate that other families don't celebrate here in the United States on their

birthdays. Have students write a short summary of one thing that is unique to their family

when celebrating birthdays. Invite students to share their summaries with the class.

B. Brainstorm. Ask students to think of some popular games that children play at birthday

parties. Write the list on the chalkboard.

C. Cooperative Learning. Divide the class into small groups of students. Have each group

create a new game to be played at birthday parties. Students will work together to write a

description, rules, any items needed to play the game, and a name for their game. Have

each group share their ideas with the class and play the game if time permits.

D. Jigsaw. Break the class into groups of 5-8 students depending on how many countries you

would like them to learn about (each group will study the same countries). Give each

person in the group a different country to read about (have photo copies of descriptions of

each country's birthday customs for them to read). A great reference for this activity is Happy Birthdays

Around The World by L. Johnson. Allow students 20-30 minutes to read their article and decide on what

they should "teach" their group members about their country's birthday customs (students may also want

to find the different countries on the map). After each student in the group has had the opportunity to teach

their group (allow about 10 minutes for each students), have students write one or two sentences about

each country they learned about. Their sentences should include things that are unique to that country. For

example, they should discuss things like how often they celebrate their birthday (every year, every ten

years), if they wear special clothes, and what unique activities they do. Try to steer them away from the

basic, "common" birthday traditions like birthday cakes, games, presents, etc. unless there

is an unique way in which they so it.

E. Creative Writing. Motivate students interest in this activity by reading some famous tall tales like Paul

Bunyan and Davy Crocket. Discuss how exaggeration is used in tall tales to make it more exciting. Next,

have your students create their own tall tale about (they choose the name), the Birthday Kid. They could

make up a name to use as their birthday kid or use their own name. Instruct students that the "Birthday

Kid" in their tall tale needs to be from a country other than the United States and that their story needs to

display some customs about the country they chose (this could include customs like a special birthday

dress they wore for a birthday in Japan or offerings they received for a birthday in Thailand). Have

students illustrate an event from their story and compile each of their tall tales into a class book to keep in

the room or library.

F. Hands-on. Create a "Birthday Hall of Fame" bulletin board to celebrate famous people

(past and present) born during the month you're teaching your birthday unit. Have a list of

famous people (historical, authors, celebrities), whose birthdays fit that month, ready

before beginning this activity (one for each student is best). Be aware of where the famous

people are from as the students will have a difficult time completing this project if it is a

country you didn't discuss birthday traditions about. Assign each student (or let them

choose) one famous person to research. Next, have students create a Birthday Hall of

Fame poster (8 1/2 x 11) that tells the name of the person and why they are famous, when

their birthday is, where the person is from, and how they might celebrate their birthday

(based on their learning from the jigsaw). Display their posters on the Hall of Fame

bulletin board. If time permits, you may also want to have the students create a birthday

card for their famous person and display it as well.

G. Discussion. At the completion of the above activities, ask the students the following

questions: Why do we use candles (send cards, play games, sing, spank) on our birthday?

What are some different birthday customs around the world? Allow students to share as

many examples as they can.


Game summaries will be assessed for completion.

Tradition summaries completed for the mini-interviews will be assessed.

Paragraphs summarizing customs around the world will be assessed.

Tall tales and illustrations of them will be assessed.

Responses to discussion questions will be assessed.

Hall of Fame posters will be assessed.

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