Happy Birthday to Someone

By: Mark Juddery, Canberra Sri Chinmoy Centre

When I was at school, spending my spare time devouring trivia at libraries, one of my hobbies was finding out which famous people shared my birthday. I was very excited to find that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was among them. Not that I knew anything about him, but I knew he was really famous, and considered a Great Man (in America at least). A few others shared my special day: dancer Cyd Charisse, actor Lynn Redgrave, author Kenneth Graham, one of the Monkees, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island… With unbridled enthusiasm, I would read avidly about each celebrity with my birthday, whatever their claim to fame. Then I would tell everyone about their greatness: ‘Cyd Charisse appeared in some of the best movies ever made'; ‘The Monkees were a truly superb pop band'; ‘Gilligan’s Island was better than everyone thinks!’

Most of us are proud of our birthdays, even if they seem fairly unexciting to everyone else. Super-patriotic American showman George M. Cohan, the first entertainer to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, was perhaps disappointed to be born on July 3, 1878, missing US Independence Day by inches. But his father (also in show business) had changed George’s birthday, so that in his self-penned hit song ‘Yankee Doodle Dandee’, the younger Cohan could proudly sing that he was ‘born on the fourth of July.’ The lyrics have made it sound like the birthday of true patriots, but of course, most of them were born on another day entirely. Though three US Presidents have died on that venerated date, only one (the forgettable Calvin Coolidge) had it for a birthday.

Though America was born on the fourth of July, Jesus Christ almost certainly was not born on Christmas day – previously the date of an ancient pagan ritual. But now, Christmas-born people are upstaged, year after year, by someone who, strictly speaking, doesn’t even share their birthday. They only get one set of presents each year, and as the turkey and the plum pudding are taking so much room, they don’t even get a birthday cake!

(In fact, I always considered that the best thing about my own birthday – apart from sharing it with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – was that it was NOT Christmas, and indeed, it was just distant enough so that my parents couldn’t use the one-big-combined-present excuse.)

But it’s worth it in the end for the Christmas-born. Not only is their birthday a national holiday, but people born on December 25 tend to lead successful lives. Studies show that this is true, though I’m not certain what these ‘studies’ are meant to involve. The list of Christmas babies is impressive: Sir Isaac Newton, Helena Rubenstein, Cab Calloway, Rod Serling, Little Richard, Sissy Spacek, Annie Lennox…

Of course, every date has its celebrities (and I’ll bet this one doesn’t have anyone from Gilligan’s Island), but Christmas seems to be a good time to be born. Publicity for the Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart always listed his birthdate as Christmas Day 1899, which was later ‘exposed’ as a Hollywood myth. As Clifford McCarty wrote in The Complete Films of Humphrey Bogart, Warner Bros Studios had changed his birthday from the less romantic date of 23 January 1900, ‘to foster the view that a man born on Christmas Day couldn’t really be as villainous as he appeared to be on screen’ (McCarty). Interestingly, before his roles in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca’, Bogie usually played villains.

This would have been one of Hollywood’s strangest publicity decisions. Stars were meant to fit their on-screen persona, so ‘softening’ one of their tough guys with a Christmas birthday seems to defeat the purpose. However, as any of his biographers could tell you, Bogart was the real deal – and that included his birthdate. Bogart really WAS born on Christmas Day.

What can Christmas babies draw from this? Can they take pride in sharing a birthday with one of the great film stars? Some astrologers have suggested that each birthday has a certain personality type, and a quick glance would suggest… nothing much. What do I have in common with the celebrities, named above, who share my birthday (apart from the same star sign)?

Are birthdays as special as we think? Let’s look at people with the same birth dates – not only those born on the same date, but also the same year. Birth twins, at it were.

Start with Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, two of the great figures of the 19th century. Both were born on the same day: 12 February 1812. They were born worlds apart: Darwin in a mansion, to a distinguished west England family; Lincoln in a log cabin, to a poor frontier farmer. Nonetheless, in their respective fields, they had a few things in common.

Both were raised as Christians, but Darwin died an atheist, and Lincoln was reputedly an outspoken non-believer (both were accused of being ‘godless’). Both had less-than-impressive school records, but self-taught themselves to reach the peak of their professions. Both were “mutaphiliacs”, known for their ability to embrace change. Both detested slavery. “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble,” wrote Darwin, “to think that we Englishmen and our American descendents, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty” (White and Gribbin 57). Lincoln’s stated objective in the American Civil War was, of course, to end the slave trade.

Both men had major turning points in 1835, at age 23: Lincoln entered politics, and Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands, which eventually inspired his Theory of Evolution. His greatest work, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859 – one year before Lincoln was elected US President. With these events, both would challenge the status quo – changing the world, and winning enemies among the conservatives of the time: Darwin would be denounced and Lincoln would be killed.

In those days, when celebrities did not grow on trees (at least, not to the same extent as today), it seems remarkable that two such outstanding figures were born on the exact same day. According to astrologers and numerologists, however, it is no coincidence.

Whether or not you believe in astrology, there is statistical evidence to suggest that, yes, birth twins tend to have a few things in common. In the seventies and eighties, French psychologists Michel and Francoise Gauquelin studied the birth charts of over 60,000 people, and found that people with similar birth charts seem to have similar character traits and professions (Watson). Independent researchers had the same findings, using different samples. Even sceptics’ groups had these findings, which must have caused them no end of frustration.

In the world of showbiz, people are often matched up due to their astrological compatibility. I’m not sure whether this works, but some birth twins, at least, have proven very compatible. Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer made good co-stars in the 1993 film The Age of Innocence. Quincy Jones composed the music for the classic 1969 flick The Italian Job, starring his birth twin Michael Caine. Oliver Stone directed Tommy Lee Jones in their two most controversial movies. And a 21 June 1947 birthdate would have helped you win a starring role in Family Ties. (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross played the parents in that 1980s sitcom.)

Then there are environmental artists Christo (Javacheff) and Jeanne-Claude (de Guillebon), both born on 13 June 1935, who have collaborated on many projects over the past 40 years, and have been happily married for even longer. If you believed in astrology, you would probably say it was written in the stars.

But what does that say about people who, despite sharing a birthday, might have been born years apart? Perhaps nothing. All we can say is that your birthday should be of great significance to you. When it happens, enjoy yourself – but make sure that nobody sings you the song “Happy Birthday to You”, because it’s covered by copyright until 2030. (As the most frequently-sung song in the world, it rakes in $US2 million in royalties each year – even though most people who sing it don’t actually pay anything.)

Above all, see your birthday as something positive. It doesn’t mean you’re getting older; it just means you’re getting presents.

Mark Juddery
Canberra – Australia

Originally posted on Sri Chinmoy Centre – Inspiration Letters

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