The Way it Was: Celebrating 96th year, columnist reflects on birthdays

by JOhn Straka Published:

I was born at home because I wanted to be near my mother. That's an old joke, but it provides a peek into the past. Most babies were born at home in 1917 and on that day, Dec. 18, I became the firstborn son of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Straka, Sr.

I was given the name of my father, making me a John Jr. which was a common custom at the time. Fathers wanted a son to carry on the family name. As families grew, with as many as 12 children, the babies were given names of aunts and uncles, grandparents and godparents and sometimes the names of people in public life.

Many babies were named after the saint whose feast day was closest to the day of the baby's birth. My mother was named Anna because she was born near the feast day of Saint Ann. My sister was also born near that same feast day, but she was not named Anna since that would have made her Anna Jr. and I don't know why, but girl babies were seldom named after their mothers.

When a baby is born at home, the birth needs to be recorded and in those long ago days, when many people were illiterate and did not have a car or telephone, recording the birth might have been delayed or not done at all.

However, babies would be baptized shortly after birth and that would be recorded in the parish record book. In modern times, it is often easier to find a baptism record than a birth record. Some people born 100 or more years ago did not know exactly when they were born. That created problems when proof of age was required. Some would celebrate a name day instead of a birthday.

I was not only a Christmas gift for my parents, but I was also born just in time to keep my father out of World War I. That war was nearing the end, anyway, so it didn't make that much difference.

I remember when births and weddings would be published in the local daily newspapers. That was done somewhat the way death notices are published today, except in those days such information was considered part of public records. Today, death notices are paid for by the families of the deceased.

As a child I do not remember any kind of birthday celebrations. When I was a bit older, I recall my Mom baking a cake every time one of us kids had a birthday. Those cakes were made from scratch since there were no boxed cake mixes. Most of the time they were two or three layers with frosting. Can you imagine a mother with a dozen children doing that? I don't remember celebrating birthdays of Mom, Dad, or Grandma.

It used to be customary to give the birthday child a penny for each year, as a birthday gift. A 10-year-old would get 10 pennies, which would be enough to buy two ice cream cones. If an aunt or uncle did the same, the kid would be rich. Later on, as we kids grew, we might get a dime for each year.

Birthday candles have been around for as far back as I can remember. Some trick candles were made so they would reignite after being blown out. You were supposed to make a wish while blowing and I would always wish for another birthday, or another cake. I don't know where this custom came from or if it is still used today, but if it was your birthday, you could expect to get a pat on the back, one pat for every year. In a group of overeager well wishers, you could get a real pounding.

I do not remember many birthday parties. I was a guest at a party for a 7-year-old cousin in Indiana. I remember some girls having sweet 16 parties. People tend to celebrate certain milestones, such as a 25th or a 40th. Both my wife and my daughter celebrated their birthdays while on cruise ships and my daughter celebrated a recent one on a train ride. I was in Marymount hospital for my 65th. I had a big party for my 90th, and I will never forget how a blizzard kept half the invited guests from attending.

Birthday cards and gifts are pretty new. Celebrating birthdays has been more for youngsters than for adults. Most women do not want anyone to know how old they are. There is a saying that a woman is only as old as she looks and a man is old when he stops looking. When you grow older, each year is a gift, an accomplishment, something to be proud of.

I'm not sure how people celebrate birthdays now. There are party centers that sell mylar balloons, paper hats, party favors, special napkins and paper or plastic plates, all color coordinated. I suppose the Internet is used by some to email birthday greetings.

I would like to celebrate my 100th in 2017, maybe get a letter from the White House. For now, I'll gladly settle for a big slice of apple pie, knowing I am in reasonably good health for my age.

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