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Rituals in Human Life: Birthday Party


Our life is full of rituals; however, we often fail to see them, probably the main reason for it is that we often take them for granted and therefore forget about their symbolism and meaning that they convey. Overall, a ritual can be defined as the prescribed or established set of actions, which is supposed to render certain symbolic message (Bell, 1997).

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It is quite possible for us to single out several types of rituals, such as for instance, rites of passage, funerary rites, rites of inversion, purification, interaction rites, civil ceremonies, meditation rites (Grimes, 1985). Certainly, this list can be easily continued, but the above-mentioned rituals seem to be the most important and widespread ones.

There are various approaches to the classification of rituals. Overall, there are two criteria, according to which, it is possible to classify the procedure, the purpose of the ritual and the ritual activity. Some scholars also consider the ritual space and ritual objects as criteria, but such approach is a subject of heated debate, because the space or objects can be common for several rituals (Turner, 1990).


According to Catherine Bell, almost every ritual can be characterized by the following features: formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, and symbolism (Bell, 1997).

As regards formalism, it is necessary to mention that rites and processions are conducted according certain algorithms, which are viewed as obligatory. Naturally, some modifications can be made, but the essence of the formula cannot be changed, otherwise, it is impossible to call this procedure a ritual. For example, certain table etiquette is obligatory on some occasions, certain activities can viewed as an inseparable part of a ritual or ceremony. Some rites are unimaginable without several objects, as for instance, birthday party is always associated with a birthday cake (Turner, 1980).

Traditionalism implies that every ritual adheres to the principles, established in a certain culture. Every ceremony is repetitive in its core; therefore, it tends to emulate its precedents, if it is in no way connected with the customs of a country (or certain region), the procedure may seem to be abnormal. In fact, it cannot be called a ritual. The same rule can be applied to a birthday party, in many cultures, this event is viewed as a transition ritual, and there are elements that symbolize this transition, for example festive mood, birthday cake, and candles. In addition to that, in every culture, birthday song is a compulsory element. If such principles are disregarded, the procedure, itself usually brings no satisfaction to the participants (Hughes-Freeland, 1998).

Some scholars also believe that ritual-like activities are invariant. Certainly, this statement is quite disputable, because some rituals may contain deviations from a pattern (Bell, 1997). For example, a birthday party can be held in various locations, the number of guest can vary, decorations does not necessarily have to be identical. However, there are some invariable elements, for instance the tone of the ritual.

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However, the most important feature is symbolism, as far as a birthday party is concerned, we should mention the following attributes that are supposed to have symbolic meaning: first, a birthday cake, and especially candles (Hughes-Freeland, 1998). These ritual objects represent the flow of time, certain transition, or change (not only physical but also spiritual and social). For example, if a person is coming of age, he or she receives new rights (and obligations).

It is worth mentioning, that the overwhelming majority of people usually follow all this principles unconsciously. We cannot say that the choice is always premeditated and that people intentionally want to render some symbolic messages. It can be explained in the following way: to some extent, all of us are inclined to emulate the behavior of our ancestors; however, we do not always pay attention to the causes of such behavior and therefore we forget about its meaning. Some scholars, 85 percent of our actions can be characterized by habituality (Turner, 1980). In psychology, the word “habit” implies unconscious emulating of the behavior. The word unconscious is crucial in this case.

In this essay, we will analyze such seemingly simple ritual as a birthday party. At first glance, it may seem that this ceremony is very commonplace, but, it has many components, and each has specific meaning that can be interpreted. In particular, I would like to describe a birthday party that I have recently participated in from the following standpoints: the space of the ritual, the ritual objects, time, language, identity, and action. These are the main criterion for description; such approach to the description of ritual-like activities was taken by Ronald Grimes (Grimes, 1995).

However, before we start analyzing the ritual (birthday), it is of the crucial importance to mention that this research has several peculiar features. First, it belongs to the field of anthropology, and this science has certain ethical principles and standards that must be met.

It should be borne in mind that, that participants of the experiment should be fully aware of the aims that the research has to achieve. In addition to that, the researcher has to obtain permission to conduct the experiment. As far as I am concerned, I have managed to do it, though my friend was very much surprised, when I told him, that his birthday party could be interpreted, according some very “vague” anthropological criteria.

Considering highly sensitive nature of this ritual, my friend asked me not to mention his name in my research work. Such demand does not contradict the ethical principles of anthropology, because according to them, every participant has right to remain anonymous, if it is possible. As far as my role in this procedure is concerned, I would like to say that I was simultaneously a participant and observer. Anthropologists always have to take into account the observer effect, which means that people are inclined to change their behavior, when they are watched.

Overall, a birthday party is considered the “rite of passage”; this term was first employed by a French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep. According to him, every right of passage has the following intrinsic features; the focus on individuals

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and symbolic pattern (Van Gennep, 1996). At first glance, such statement may seem to be a truism; however, it should be taken into consideration that, some rites are not individual-oriented, for instance, civil or religious ceremonies. In his opinion, rites of passage mostly symbolize the death and rebirth. However, Victor Turner in his work “Ritual Process” also singles out the so-called “middle phase” (Turner, 1990). The scholar believes that such rituals can symbolize the transition from one state to another but it does necessarily have to be death and rebirth.

As it has already been mentioned earlier, there can be various criteria for description, for example “the ritual space” (Grimes, 1995). Regarding my friends birthday party, I should first mention that it was held indoors. It was connected with the practical reason; it was heavily raining on that day, and we could not possibly perform it outdoors, though it was the initial plan.

The boundaries of the ritual space (in this case it was a living room) were not rigidly defined. Although there were some indicators, which showed this place was to some extent, special, for instance, the presence of decorations, posters, and especially my friends photographs. Outside areas (the dining room, hallway, and kitchen) did not indicate that that the birthday party was under way. At least, it seemed to me that they were in their usual state. It should be mentioned that my friends family always holds festivities or celebrations in this room. Probably, it symbolizes their unity or unanimity.

At first glance, it seemed to me that the place did not facilitate any hierarchy, but when I took a closer look at the positioning of people, I noticed that there were not located chaotically, and that there was some principle. For instance, my friend seemed to be at the center of the room, which is not surprising because he was the hero of the occasion. This fact proves the statement that rites of passage are individual-oriented. His grandfather was sitting next to him and occasionally, it seemed to me that he was the most dominant figure in this procedure. However, I cannot tell that there were mens or womens side. Men and women were located haphazardly, and in this respect, it is necessary to mention that such positioning also has certain symbolic messages. First, it reflects some of family values, for instance, respect for the elders. Secondly, it shows that the family is unanimous, because it is not separated into two parts, male and female. Naturally, such conjectures cannot be substantiated only by birthday party, especially considering the fact that it was attended by many guests. Nevertheless, it seems to me that such seeming trivial thing as position of people at the dinner table can tell a lot about their habits, or for instance relationships in the family.

As regards background of this scene, I should mention that windows in the living room opened on a seacoast, which produced a very vivid impression, especially considering the fact that the sea was rough, and it was raining. The most peculiar feature of my friends birthday party was the sharp contrast between the festivity that was indoors and the storm outside. It should be mentioned that the room was oriented to the west and when the party was drawing to its close, the westering sun going below the water surface created a very pacifying atmosphere.

Another criterion, according to which one can analyze or interpret the ritual, is the “ritual objects. Every rite or procedure (including a birthday party) involves the use of certain objects, which are considered a constituent part of the procedure itself.

Invariable attribute of any birthday party is a cake especially with candles. It should be taken into consideration that other cultures do not view it as some compulsory element. However, in Western countries it is hardly possible to imagine a birthday celebration without a cake. As regards my friends birthday, I should mention that the cake was fully in his mothers custody and care, who spent a considerable amount of time cooking it.

To some extent, such action can be viewed as a token of deep devotion. Certainly, it was easier to buy this tremendous torte, without spending hours in the kitchen, however, my friends mother wanted to show that it was her own contribution to the party. In addition to that, she said that women in her family always took personal approach to such issue as preparing a birthday cake. In my view, this present could be viewed as a work of art; it was not produced by some machine, on the opposite, it was hand-made by my friends mother put all her energy and ingenuity into it. Additionally, the tracery that she designed seemed to me unique and original.

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However, the most noticeable element was my friend’s photographs. The main peculiarity was that they represented his growth, from his childhood years to adolescence. Initially he resolutely opposed to this idea saying that no one should see his childhood photos, but his parents managed to persuade him. The display of my friends photographs was supposed to render certain symbolic meaning in particular, the flow of time and the fluidity of a persons growth and development. A birthday party is usually viewed as the rite of passage; the photographs only emphasized this idea of transition.

Analyzing any ritual-like activity, it is of the crucial importance to pay attention to its timing. First, the party began in the evening (approximately at six oclock) ended early in the morning. I cannot say that the timing was supposed to have some symbolic meaning; it was mostly connected with the scheduling problems. This time was the most convenient for the participants. Perhaps, it is a far-fetched conclusion, but such timing only stressed the idea of transition, of ending and beginning, especially remembering the succession of sunset and sunrise. Naturally, the choice was not deliberate, the tradition to hold birthday parties until morning is very widespread. Additionally, I cannot say that the party ended abruptly; probably it did not have any fixed schedule. The festivities could have lasted much longer, if we had not gone to sleep.

As far as ritual sound and language are concerned, this party can be analyzed from various points of view, first the tone of conversation, the figures of speech, employed during the conversation. One should also pay extra attention to the relationships between the words and actions, whether they are in harmony, or they contradict each other. Moreover, it is necessary to explore the use of nonlinguistic sounds (music, in particular), whether it coincides with the general atmosphere or not.

In this respect, I should first say that I am just an interpreter of the “ritual” and my evaluation can be rather subjective. Nevertheless, now it seemed to me the music and the language of my friends birthday party came into conflict with each other. First, it is worth mentioning that my friend is very fond of classical music, especially Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven. At first, I noticed anything unusual, but later I noticed that present day pop music seemed inappropriate to him especially on his birthday, not only in terms of its style, but also in terms of its mood. Naturally, he pretended that everything was all right, and that rock’n’roll suited him down to the ground, but in private he told me that Vivaldis “Snowstorm” would be more pleasant to him on this particular occasion. Thus, I can conclude that light-heartedness of the party did not exactly correspond with the mood (at least regarding the hero of the occasion).

As it has already been mentioned, the tone of conversation was mostly cheerful. Regarding the figures of speech, I should say that the style underwent a drastic change, when parents decided that his son should be left with his friends. Certainly, their presence did not lay restrain on us; however, when they left the conversation became more natural (at least in my opinion).

There is a widely held opinion that any ritual changes or transforms a persons identity, in other words a certain procedure presupposes certain behavior. It did not seem to me that this birthday party changed ordinary appearance, besides clothing. Certainly, everyone attempted to look as elegant as could be. However, some guests were dressed in their usual style (a T-shirt, shorts, or jeans). In my view, the atmosphere was as natural, and nobody had to pretend or act. Probably, the only exception was the hero of the occasion, who seemed to be a little bit downhearted in spite of all festivities.

The final criterion for analysis is the ritual action. In this case, it would be better to say the succession of actions. The party began with singing traditional birthday song, afterwards, that the hero of the occasion blew out twenty-three candles and made a silent wish. It seemed that my friend was somewhat hesitant while performing this action, as if it was some kind of a turning point for him.


Thus, it can be concluded that every ritual contains some symbolic elements but people often overlook them. Additionally, it should be mentioned that that the choices, we make are often subconscious and we often fail to see their meaning, because many actions have now turned into a habit.


  1. Catherine Bell. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  2. Felicia Hughes-Freeland. “Recasting Ritual: Performance” Routledge, 1998.
  3. Grimes Ronald (1995). Beginnings in Ritual Studies. University of South Carolina Press, pp 24-29.
  4. Grimes Ronald (1985). Ritual Types. London: Scarecrow Press, pp 7-12.
  5. Robert N. McCauley. “Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms”. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  6. Turner, V. W.. “The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure”. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
  7. Van Gennep, Arnold (1996). Territorial passage or the classification of rites. Prentice Hall, 529-536.

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