Friday, January 21

Why it’s good to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries


Celebrating my dad, Ong Kee Bian’s 90th birthday in 2016 at Sarawak Club.

IN my family, for as long as I can remember, we would always celebrate the birthdays and anniversaries of our parents, siblings and children. Especially the elders – and even more importantly, the big occasion flag-pole events of the round figures – I mean the turn of each decade, 20, 30 and 40 and so on.

I can remember my grandfather’s ‘Big 80’, and my dad’s 90th (the current Covid-19 restrictions had messed up our plans for the 95th, which had occurred in February 2021). Such occasions are usually the best time for us as a family to meet up and socialise, even if only for a few hours, members of the extended family whom we seldom see regularly.

It also acts as a family bonding exercise (especially for those overseas whom we see on special occasions) as well as a time for us all to let our hair down and enjoy ourselves. Most of our family occasions like these usually end up with lots of spirited entertainment by the more talented members of the family and plenty of merriment and boisterous good-natured ‘yam-sengs’.

It’s a well-accepted tradition that upon knowing and receiving the good news that a baby is expected that the happy celebrations begin in any family. The mothers to be are treated like queens and pampered, and the fathers would proudly be broadcasting the news to family and friends.

When the baby is born, the fun begins – unlike Western tradition where the father would give out cigars or celebrate with friends, things are more subdued till the one-month confinement period for the mother is over. Traditional Chinese families would strictly follow the long-held beliefs and customs of the ‘confinement period’ of 30 days or one full lunar month, when the mother and baby will be physically confined into a single room, cared for by a ‘confinement lady’ or elderly relative or nanny; many would even abide by the rigid rule of not even having any cold drinks or having her hair washed for the entire period!

The mother’s diet is often dictated by the medical advice from both her personal doctor as well as from family elders – it usually involves eating only food that is considered ‘warm’ and nourishing – lots of ginger and cooking wine are the rule of thumb.

The baby’s first month will end with the traditional gifting of the ‘kachang-mah’ (a motherwort chicken dish with rice wine) being distributed to all family and friends; for the more lavish minded, a party is usually organised when the baby is proudly introduced to everyone. Thus would begin his or her life of birthdays, anniversaries and joyous events to celebrate – graduation, wedding, work promotions, bestowment of awards, more birthdays and lots of anniversaries. Even the ending of his or her life will be a grand affair – the final funeral service and the burial.

What is it about birthdays and anniversaries that those who celebrate them look forward to so much? I know people who do not even want to remember theirs and would never be part of any such celebration.

For many, it’s just another day, which they’d rather forget or let it pass unnoticed and unannounced.

Personally, I like celebrating such joyous occasions. They need not be grand affairs with lots of people, or at extravagant venues, or cost an arm and a leg. The meaning of the word itself – to celebrate – the Oxford Dictionary described it as in a verb: “To acknowledge (a significant or happy day or event) with a social gathering or enjoyable activity.”

Its other meaning is steeped in Christianity: “To perform (a religious ceremony) in particular officiate at (the Eucharist), as in ‘he celebrated holy communion’.”

Other synonyms of the word ‘celebrate’ are ‘bless’, ‘exalt’, ‘extol’, ‘glorify’ and ‘commemorate’.

These are all positive, happy and celebratory words and meanings and convey with it the excitement, energy and joy of what any celebration should be like.

We all go through life going about our daily routine and doing everyday chores – some of us work, others are in schools or are retired. Some would be doing their daily exercises, at the gym, at the dance studios or on the road running errands. Some would be the ‘Grab drivers’ for their family – children or elders; others yet picking up groceries or food for family members or friends. Many would be at charitable organisations helping out, yet many others busy volunteering their time and effort at their local churches, temples and mosques.

The list goes on and on. It’s a never-ending, ceaseless cycle of life. And we repeat it all over again the next day, and the next.

Don’t we all look forward to a break in our normal daily routine, in the everyday drudgery of our chores and the clockwork sameness that we have to endure, tolerate and accept?

I know I do.

Birthdays – I can recall with nostalgia the days in my teens when I looked forward to receiving as presents my favourite vinyl records and books because during that phase of my life, that’s all I was into; later on in life when I started work and began to socialise more, the more desired presents became bottles of single-malt whiskies and wines.

But it wasn’t presents that we all look forward to – it’s more the company, the socialising, the camaraderie, the joy of being together just having fun and catching up – as the years passed, such occasions have become greatly reduced as more and more friends begin to drop out of the inner circle, due to the obvious reasons of health, proximity and differences.

Things change over time, one feel blessed each time that one can sit down together with good friends and close family and celebrate something – anything.

Anniversaries tend to be more sentimental, and especially more so if these happen to be wedding anniversaries, which is the most commonly celebrated. The notable ones are celebrated for the 10th (Tin), 25th (Silver), 30th (Pearl), 50th (Gold) and 60th (Diamond).

It’s also nice and romantic if you could remember to celebrate certain other less common anniversaries – for instance, the anniversary of when you had first met each other; your graduation day or first job; the death of a loved one; or some other momentous occasion.

Anniversaries, I feel, are an important part of life – they remind us of past important events, both personal or involving other, whether it’s marking a wedding, a birthday or some memorable occasion; it pins down a date on our calendar to remind us of something that matters to us. Whatever it is, it gives us a chance to look back over the years since the event we’re marking, and reflect on how it has shaped us.

Because remembering the past, but not letting it rule or overwhelm us can be a very important part of understanding who we really are and how we came to be the person we are today.

That is why for me. it is part of my growing up and such celebrations are so integral to my own personal life today.