I think I was seven or eight the day I cried to my mum about just wanting a cake with candles.
I pleaded so much that she brought out the Victoria sponge with raspberry jam that she had just made, stuck a dinner candle on top and lit it. ‘Are you happy now?’ I wiped my eyes and nodded, because for a moment I think I genuinely was. I made a wish like I had seen on TV – probably for Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin to be my boyfriend, yuck – then blew out the candle. I don’t even think it was my actual birthday.
The joy quickly went away though as I looked at the once perfectly good cake now with blobs of wax and a gaping hole in it, and waited for a call from Macaulay that never came. What a letdown. I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, but I was glad that I finally got an insight into the ritual that seemed to be the norm for everyone else but me.
I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, a Christian subsect that views many aspects of society as morally corrupt and, cheerily, believe that the world is due to end any minute now. Basically, Witnesses believe that living according to their interpretation of the Bible will mean that once the world ends, they will be rewarded with eternal life. And while it’s not specifically mentioned in the Bible that birthdays are bad, Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays as they believe they are rooted in pagan origins and therefore a big no-no to God.
As an adult, the reasoning behind JWs not doing birthdays (as well as Christmas, Halloween and other ‘worldly’ practices) makes more sense to me – but as a kid with little understanding of what the point of religion even was, it was mostly just embarrassing and silly. What kind of god hates cake, presents and a cute song? And I constantly felt guilty for being naturally excited about turning a year older.
This isn’t to say the lives of Jehovah’s Witness children all over the world are grim. I still got presents and stuff, just sprinkled throughout the year for no reason at all, and there were always parties for some reason or another. I was pretty lucky in that my mum understood how confusing being part of a world-critical religion but having to, you know, be a part of the world, could be for a kid. A lot of Witness families are much stricter though. I remember one boy in the year below me at my primary school whose parents requested he sit out of the end of Autumn term assemblies so that he didn’t have to sing the Christmas carols. I think the most important thing in my family was that we had a solid foundation and understanding of the faith but weren’t given an excuse to be made to feel like weirdos, especially at an age when that can happen easily enough without even bringing religion into the mix.
Over the course of my teens, my family gradually stopped being practicing Witnesses. Conveniently, this was also at a time I was increasingly convinced that it was in no way the faith for me. So the first time I had a proper birthday cake with real candles and actual icing, I was 18. This time it felt a little more magical (although that could have been the cocktails). I can’t remember what I wished for but I remember not having that guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was doing something wrong.
I’ve still never had a big party though, I don’t really see the point when I managed my entire childhood without one. Now I see birthdays as a time to reflect on how much I’ve grown over the past year and where I hope the next year will take me, whether that’s spent amongst friends and family or alone. But either way, I’m always happy to catch up on all the cake I missed.
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