I was 24 when I first had a birthday cake. While on holiday with cousins in America, an ice-cream cake with magic candles emerged from the freezer at midnight on Christmas Eve. Unused to the attention, I blushed when a champagne cork popped and three voices sang "Happy Birthday". Then there were the birthday presents, wrapped in non-Christmassy paper, and birthday cards too. Celebrating on the 24th left the next day free for Christmas without brushing my birthday aside, so in the years since, my parents have adopted this night-before-the-morning-after routine – though, as a child I opened my birthday presents on Christmas Day.
This isn't a sob story. I don't miss birthday cake, and my family and friends have always been doubly generous over the years. One friend always sings "Happy Birthday" down the phone, interrupting her day to make mine. And yet, like many people born on 25 December, my birthday has never felt my own. It's an adjunct to a bigger event from which I feel strangely apart, an observer. It's my day, but snatching some of it for myself seems selfish. Instead I watch, wondering what it's like to celebrate Christmas so freely, unencumbered by a birthday.
Perhaps I should have done as Jo Scott-Dalgleish, 42, a nutritionist from Chiswick, west London, did. On her ninth Christmas-birthday she threw a tantrum as she felt she wasn't getting "a proper birthday". Since then she's celebrated at 8pm (when she was born) with a toast, then dinner. Birthday presents happen the next day.
On a flight back from Cyprus four years ago, I met Clare Morgan, now a retired air hostess living in the New Forest, and delighted in discovering she was born on the same day and in the same year as me (we'll both be 54 this December). Of course, we compared notes. It's what we Christmas babies do. After stockings and Christmas presents in the morning, she would sit at the head of the table at lunch with her grandparents. At 4pm, the time of her birth, the whole family was expected to watch her open her birthday presents and share birthday cake. The turkey then followed in the evening. But what happens now that she's a parent with children for whom Christmas is the priority? "I'm lucky if I get a 'Happy birthday, mum,'" she laughs.
It isn't only those of us born on 25 December who feel ambivalent about the festive season. Late-December babies in general all share the same indignations, and over the years I have gathered many opinions on how we would prefer to celebrate our birthdays. Wrapping gifts in snowmen-and-reindeer paper is the biggest sin. As we see it, we aren't asking for much and, as one super-organised 60-something born on the 22 December birthday recently told me, our friends have got all year to do it.
Giving joint Christmas-and-birthday presents brings mixed responses from us, even though there's the chance to "snaffle something at slightly higher than double the value" as one person put it. Opinion is divided on adding birthday greetings to Christmas cards. It's lovely to be acknowledged, but it's still not a birthday card, we say. However, we do appreciate well-chosen cards – and tend to send more birthday cards than we receive. I loved getting hard-to-find, all-in-one Christmas-birthday cards from an aunt in Hong Kong, and look forward to family-friend Jane Tarrant's birthday wishes in her Christmas card to me.
Jane will be 79 on 27 December, which she says is "a bloody awful day to have a birthday. Everyone has had enough of wining and dining".
By New Year's Eve friends are back in the mood for a party and, in one family of my acquaintance, decorations come down a day early to honour a Twelfth Night birthday. But Jennie Milsom, a food writer from Southwark, south London, feels her 15 January birthday "is a bit close [to Christmas]. No one has any money in January for going out and celebrating".
For going out and celebrating is what most of us want to do. So, as very few friends can spare the time just before Christmas, and don't have the cash or the inclination afterwards, we want to do it in June. Jo Scott-Dalgleish leads the pack again, with "the institution called my half-birthday", a special weekend that includes dinner out and a trip to the theatre. As a child, Darren Field, 43, a greengrocer from Isleworth, west London, also often got a present on 24 June in recognition of his Christmas Eve birthday.
There are always exceptions. With a large Greek Cypriot family, Andreas Georghiou, 43, a shopkeeper from Chiswick, was guaranteed a lot of attention on his childhood Boxing Day birthdays. These days his birthday is irrelevant; it's a rare day with his children. Plus, he adds, parties are out of the question: "Trying to get people together is really hard – they're always committed to their own families."
Of all similar dates, Jo Scott-Dalgleish thinks "it's preferable to be born on Christmas Day" and I agree. Georghiou has "always felt privileged" that his birthday fell on Boxing Day. Darren Field works on his Christmas Eve birthday but falls into the pub to celebrate with friends, never buying a round. We all like having birthdays that are talking points. Don't feel sorry for us; as Clare Morgan says, "we don't know any different". Happy Christmas!
Famous Christmas birthdays
Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, below, (23 Dec 1967)
Lemmy (24 Dec 1945)
Stephanie Meyer (24 Dec 1973)
Humphrey Bogart (25 Dec 1899)
Karl Rove (25 Dec 1950)
Helena Christensen (25 Dec 1968)
Dido (25 Dec 1971)
Jared Leto (26 Dec 1971)
David Sedaris (26 Dec 1956)Reuse content