Remember When Wishing Someone a Happy Birthday Was Not Done Digitally?

Remember when wishing someone a happy birthday was not done digitally?

I do.

When I was a child, happy birthdays were wished in person, by a group of peers surrounding the birthday boy or girl, wearing cone-shaped hats with an elastic chinstrap stapled to the sides, and singing the song “Happy Birthday” while a parent tried not to drop the blazing cake on anyone’s head. When my closest friend at the time – closest meaning his house was closer than any other kid’s – turned five, I was positive that the instant he blew out the candles he would grow a few inches before my very eyes. I was disappointed to see that he stayed the same size and still refused to let me sign-out his He-Man figurines.

In elementary school the procedure was the same except that it was done during class time. These were the days before peanut allergies, and the procedure was similar except that a parent of the birthday boy or girl had to take time off of work to bring in a cake so that class time could be spent wearing the cone-shaped hats and singing the song. If your birthday fell on the weekend or during the summer you were out of luck.

In high school, though, the male students adopted an odd procedure for wishing other male students a happy birthday. Instead of wearing hats, or singing songs, or eating cake, or even just saying “Happy Birthday,” the birthday wishes came in the form of birthday punches.

My seventeenth birthday is etched in my memory. It was third period math class, and I was trying to decide how many lines of notebook paper I wanted my integral symbol to occupy, when a classmate in the next row said, “Hey Kaplowitz, I heard that today’s your birthday.”

“Oh really? No one told me.”

“Very funny.” And he came over and punched me seventeen times in the upper arm, hard. “And one more for good luck,” and he punched me again. Then another classmate got me. Then another. I tried to turn away but they had no problem going to the other arm. “Happy Birthday,” each would say before laying in. They were all lined up. It was like being mugged.

By fifth period my arms were throbbing and I couldn’t hold them up. I staggered into English class like an old boxer and the words going through my head were, “Please, please no more.” But they were there in the back of the classroom, like a gang, throwing their fists softly into open palms, waiting for me. “Hey guys, it’s Kaplowitz’s birthday today!” said the ringleader, the same one who first got me in math class. I cited an old rule from the Court of Chancery that permits only one series of birthday punches per person per birthday. “Wow, you’d make a good lawyer,” he says, and then starts punching me in the arm. He doesn’t get through them all because I start falling to the floor and our teacher starts passing out copies of A Separate Peace.

My arms eventually healed, which was fortunate because wishing someone a happy birthday today requires typing. But not much more than that. You enter a username and password on a social networking website, and the website reminds you of your friends’ birthdays. Click on their name, type “Happy Birthday” in the field, press return, and you’re done, your birthday wish slotted atop all the birthday wishes that came before. For a while I tried to add variety to my birthday wish by adding “Hope you have an awesome day,” but then one day I did that with two people who had the same birthday, and I got caught and it was awkward. At least I didn’t punch them.

The other day was the birthday of a good friend that I had not seen in a while. I could have posted a “Happy Birthday” on his profile page, but it felt so impersonal. I wanted to do something really special. So I texted him instead.

Happy birthday to my wife, who tolerates all this blogging, and who I think is expecting more than a text.

Thanks to Adam Foley for the topic.

0 thoughts on “Remember When Wishing Someone a Happy Birthday Was Not Done Digitally?

  1. Great post! I just love your site, as I do a lot of “remembering when”. This particular post goes with something that I have been saying for so long….”with all of this advanced technology, we communicate in a less advanced manner”. By that, I mean less personal. Now there are gobs of folks that I probably wouldn’t even reach, if it weren’t for social networking, but I just hope it doesn’t take away from the sincerity of my wish, and I hope that I won’t fall victim to the e-card…someone has to keep Hallmark in biz!!
    Again…. love reading your posts… keep up the great work!


    1. That is a good way to put it, Carol – I think one big way in which social media is less advanced is the loss of tone. I spend hours on a two-sentence message because I want to convey a certain tone; or more often avoid a certain tone. The lilt in voice, hand and head gestures, facial expressions, a reassuring touch on the arm, a birthday punch – this is all lost in social media, and the only offered substitutes are asterisks and emoticons. Thanks for the comment. Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I will keep it up.

    1. But aren’t those cards so expensive? I agree that it’s nice to send and receive physical birthday cards, but I always get sticker shock at the CVS or card store. My father-in-law still likes a homemade card. I made one last year with just Post-Its and he loved it. At least he acted like he did.

  2. It was like being mugged. Awesome.

    I remember the birthday kid would pin a dollar to his or her shirt, obligating everyone with dollars to give one up.

    This was before debit cards.

    1. That sounds like a pretty cool tradition and fundraiser. Maybe today they could walk around school with a portable card-swiper-thing. They could clip it to their hips like a fanny pack!

  3. “I was trying to decide how many lines of notebook paper I wanted my integral symbol to occupy”

    This was an eternal question for me too.

    It’s little side notes like this that make your blog so awesome–it evokes a further humorous “remember when” different from the topic at hand. Although I don’t think “Remember when you had to decide how many lines of notebook paper you wanted your integral symbol to occupy?” would work as a full post.

    1. Maybe it could work as a spin off post, like “Frasier” and “Cheers,” or “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” or “Joey” and “Friends.” Actually, strike the last one; I’d like to see “Remember when you had to decide how many lines of notebook paper you wanted your integral symbol to occupy?” make it to its final episodes.

      Thank you for the comment. I’m glad you’re liking the blog.

  4. Curtis, y0u’d quickly realize that it would work as a full post if you ever saw one of Mark’s integral symbols.

    And another happy birthday message (digital this time) to our wonderful daughter-in-law!

  5. For variation I go to Wikipedia and look up this date in history. Then when I visit the FB page I add other people who share their birthday. Although sometimes it’s more fun to tell them all the famous people who died on the day they were born.

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