Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Birthdays and Coming of Age

Of course, we started this hangout with the birthday song. Actually, we didn't sing it, but we talked about how widespread it is and how many variations it has internationally (and locally). Tip: don't direct-import the birthday song into a secondary world!

Kat told us that she saw an Australian book of birthday cakes which featured a lot of possible birthday cakes she described as "attainable," unlike many of the art cakes we see these days. It's very easy to make the mistake of expecting a pattern of sameness to hold across English-speaking cultures. One of the things that was considered obligatory in this book about Australian birthdays was "fairy bread," or bread with butter and rainbow sprinkles on it. Another was the game "pass the parcel," where you wrap something up in a lot of layers of wrapping paper and pass it around to music, and people unwrap one layer at a time when the music stops.

Different social groups may have different songs they use for birthdays, like the "Birthday Dirge" in fannish circles.

The ceremony of blowing out candles is very common, but it must come at the end of the song, not the beginning or the middle.

The idea of celebrating a birthday is relatively recent. In Catholic countries, traditionally one would celebrate a Saint's Day, or the day dedicated to the saint with whom one shared a name. One might also celebrate the day one had been baptized. Kat said that when she was in Tahiti, the French-speakers there would wish her happy saint's day on Saint Katherine's Day.

Kat also brought up the topic of Japanese birthday-counting. Before Westernization, all Japanese birthdays were celebrated on January 1. You were also counted as 1 year old when you emerged from the womb, so it would be possible for a baby to be born on December 31st and be counted as two years old at the age of 2 days. She speculated that in a society where age is important and relative age is important for social interaction, that might help to create age cohorts. Kat also noted that the Chinese Zodiac year changes on January 1 in Japan, so everyone born in the same calendar year would be the same sign. Japan had a base-10 calendar for a long time, so tens and twenties are important.

When you live in a regularized and secularized system, it's easy to forget that holidays and rest days were also celebratory.

We asked where we had seen birthdays in secondary worlds. The example that came most immediately to mind was Bilbo Baggins' birthday party at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring. Hobbits also had the tradition of giving gifts, rather than receiving them, on a birthday.

Cliff had the idea that one could have a particular birthday celebration for coming of age, at which the present given by the oldest female relative would be a dagger.

In the case of outer space science fiction, calculating age and birthdays can be complicated. Which planet forms the basis for the time system? Does each have its own system? What time system is used in interstellar space? Vernor Vinge's solution was to have everyone count their age in seconds. Shauna suggested that the human body clock might be used as a basis for a time system. Kat noted that a shipborn character might measure time by "orbits" or by repair cycles on the ship clock.

Some cultures have traditionally not celebrated birthdays until the child reaches a certain age when it is more likely to survive to adulthood.

Facebook birthday announcements are inadvertently teaching us about the planetary day because of the way people get birthday wishes a day early from places in Asia. Larry Niven's Ringworld featured a person who spent his 200th birthday teleporting around the world to enjoy the entirety of it.

I spoke a little bit about birthdays in my own secondary world of Varin. In the Varin nobility, survival is not at all guaranteed, so the traditional birthday greeting is, "Congratulations." The seventeenth birthday is an important one because it marks a child's introduction into political life for boys, or into marriage elegibility for girls. The other important birthday is an early one, usually between 2 and 6 years of age, when for the first time the child is certified by a doctor as being healthy enough to join in social life. It's called a "confirmation," and one of those parties appears in my forthcoming novella, "The Persistence of Blood."

Ask: how do these people choose the age of majority? What do they base it on? Is it at all affected by developmental differences between the sexes?

Different societies have different ideas of what it means to become an adult. They also have different concepts of how precious children are, and different ideas of what kinds of developmental and social milestones are important.

Jewish adulthood happens at age 13 (with the exception of Orthodox Jews who have a boy's adulthood at 13 and a girl's at 12). Puberty is often what people identify as what makes you a grownup, but not always. Cliff noted that the concept of adolescence is relatively recent. Puberty rites exist around the world. In the Jewish case, the age of adulthood is important for ceremonial purposes, like joining in a minyan, a group of 10 or more adults. You can participate as a member of a minyan if you are over 13. You also have ritual responsibilities, which is why in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah you lead the whole service.

Puberty and adulthood are not necessarily strongly linked everywhere. You may need training to be an adult, or you may need to have achieved something particular.

In the US, you can vote at age 18, which is the age of consent (though not in all states), but you can't drink until 21 and you can't rent a car until age 25. Being able to drive a car is a huge rite of passage in the West.

What kids are allowed to do independently has been scaled back in some regions. In some places, very young children are expected to be able to get across town on public transit by themselves, or to stay home alone. In other places, parents would be blamed for allowing them to attempt it.

The movie Kiki's Delivery Service has a young witch moving out to live on her own for a year at age 13, which always astonished me.

There is so much more we could have chatted about! We'll have to take up the question of Coming of Age again sometime. Thank you to everyone who participated. Today, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet at 10am Pacific (in 25 minutes) to talk about Portraying Children. I hope you'll join us!