Birthday Celebrations in Fantasy Worlds

When I wrote about how to develop your culture’s timekeeping ideology and methodology last month, I concluded with a brief section on “lifespans and personal timekeeping.” Y’all expressed interest in a post that focused on that topic specifically (and I was recently inspired by a letter in which Tolkien went into great depth about the birthday customs of hobbits, which I highly recommend checking out as an example of this done well), so here it is! Let’s talk about birthdays.

To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate

The first thing to consider, of course, is whether your culture even celebrates birthdays in the first place. As I said in my general timekeeping post,

In a society that thinks more communally or that doesn’t make a big deal of keeping time, birthdays might not even be a consideration; it may not much matter how old you are as long as you’re doing things with your life. The same may be true in a culture that sees time as something designed by a deity; to mark time around your own life may be seen as selfish and even idolatrous.

But there are options between the two extremes of “celebrating every birthday” and “not celebrating the progression of life at all.” Some cultures might celebrate only certain milestone birthdays, such as when a character comes of age or when they hit an age of eldership (especially in a culture that values the wisdom of elders and/or in which only characters of a certain older age can take particular roles in that culture). And, of course, life milestones such as marriage may be celebrated independent of birthdays.

If your culture does celebrate birthdays frequently–if they highly value individuality, life, or growth, for example–then refer back to their general markings of time. Do they celebrate once a year (and if so, how long is their year)? Do they celebrate on the anniversary in every moon cycle? If they were born on the day of an unusual cosmic event (such as an eclipse), is their birth celebrated more rarely because it’s only celebrated when that event comes around again? How precisely are birthdays marked, in general?

Party Planning

Once you’ve decided how frequently this culture celebrates its birthdays, you can start to ask what birthday celebrations look like. First of all, how long do celebrations run? Are they kept to the specific day of birth? If this culture doesn’t keep precise track of dates, are they longer to “cover their bases,” so to speak, and ensure that the day is celebrated somewhere in there? Do they figure it’s close enough to just pick a day nearby? Is the length of the celebration based on how long a baby took to arrive (either the length of the pregnancy or the length of labor)?

Then, what are the elements of a birthday celebration? Are special foods brought out–either foods specific to birthdays in general or selected by the person being celebrated? Where do birthday celebrations take place–at home, in a place of worship, in a community space–and is it decorated for the occasion? Are decorations standard no matter what age you are, or do they differ based on age or personal preference?

Who is invited to celebrate? Are birthdays a family affair? Are friends invited? Is the whole community expected to contribute? Does it depend on the person being celebrated–their preferences, role in the community, or age?


The first thing to consider with gift-giving, is, of course, whether this culture exchanges gifts for birthdays at all. Then, if there are gifts, are they given to the person being celebrated, by the person being celebrated, or both? (I loved that in hobbit culture gifts are given to the birthday hobbit by relatives of a particular proximity, as a family responsibility, and gifts given by the birthday hobbit are to recognize those who have served a meaningful place in their life–especially within the past year. It’s a very family-centric custom that still extends somewhat into the broader community.)

Consider the purpose of these gifts. Is it to equip the aging character for the coming year (or season, if they’re celebrated more frequently)? To provide a memory for the character to keep in tangible form? Is it simply an acknowledgment of the character’s importance to the gift-giver? (If so, does this affect price? Are there ways these gifts are exchanged discreetly to minimize offense?)

An Alternative to Birthdays

If your culture doesn’t celebrate birthdays for one reason or another but still wishes to recognize those within its community, consider whether they might celebrate remembrance days after a character’s death instead. This might be particularly common in a culture where death is seen as honorable for one reason or another (going on to the afterlife, completing one’s lifelong contribution to the culture, giving one’s life for the culture in battle, etc.), or a culture that sees remembrance as a greater honor to the deceased than celebration during their lifetime–keeping the character alive in memory after they are no longer alive to make new memories.

Days of remembrance would likely fall on the date of a character’s death–though they could still occur on the character’s birthday–and may be more uniform than birthday celebrations since the personal preference of the one being celebrated might be a lesser concern. But, of course, there will likely still be some personal touch as the living characters seek to bring to memory who the deceased was. While some things–such as gift-giving–will obviously differ between a birthday and remembrance day celebration, many of the same questions–of length, how the character is recognized, who is involved, etc.–will need to be considered.

There are some of the core considerations for developing your culture’s birthday celebrations. Comment below and let me know which element you’re most excited to develop, how birthdays are celebrated in your world, or if you have any questions you’d like expanded on further!

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3 thoughts on “Birthday Celebrations in Fantasy Worlds

  1. I really enjoyed this article! I haven’t decided yet whether or not the cultures in the book I’m doing world-building for right now have birthday celebrations, but now I’m seriously considering it for at least one of them. This post also gave me a neat idea that I’m excited to develop for how one of the cultures in my book does coming-of-age celebrations!

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