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A Special Birthday Ritual

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On Friday, November 14, I observed a birthday party ritual for a one-year-old infant named Can (pronounced “John”). A Turkish family friend that we have known for a long time hosted the party. A ritual is culturally defined as a repeated event in which symbols are used to change or maintain social structures and individuals’ roles in society. Rituals are performed at special times and are separate from “everyday life.” Every time a person gets a year older, a birthday party is held in order to celebrate, making it a ritual. There are many different symbols that are present during a birthday party in the Turkish culture, a little different than those of an American birthday party.

Rituals generally hold a fixed sequence of behavior and events. I arrived with both of my parents and two little brothers, holding a gift that we got for Can. When we first walked in, the female host greeted us. We said hello (in Turkish), and each gave her a kiss on the cheek on both sides. I gave her the gift and she thanked me. We did not say “happy birthday” at all, not yet at least. From the point that we entered the house, my family and I dispersed to our own separate ways. Inside, there were many different people, most of which were Turkish and very few Americans. I knew many of the people, and said hello and kissed them twice. Everyone was dressed very fancy, even the children.

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I took note of the different rooms there were, and the different types of people gathered in each room. In the living room where we first entered, it was mostly elderly women and men sitting and socializing on the couches. They were separated, however. The women were generally talking about their children, what they cooked, how fast their grandchildren were growing up, etc. The elderly men were talking about politics and sports, while drinking “Rakı,” a strong, white liquor that mostly older men drink. When I went to the deck in the backyard, everyone that was there was mostly middle aged. What was interesting was that the men and women were all talking to each other, whereas the elders were separated by gender. They were all drinking different drinks, such as beer, rakı, wine, whiskey, etc.

In the kitchen, there were a few women other than the female host preparing drinks and helping out with the party, but no men. When I went downstairs, this was where all of the madness was. Youth of all different ages (from infant to teens) were gathered here. Some kids were eating, others were running around, and others were playing on their phones and iPods. This was also where the birthday boy was, too. A woman, who was the sister of the host, was taking care of Can and trying to feed him. A little while later, the host came downstairs and told everyone to come upstairs to the dining room, where all of the food was.

Everyone was gathered around the table and Can and his parents were sitting in the middle. There was a big cake with candles saying “Happy 1st Birthday Can” in Turkish. We all sang happy birthday and a bunch of pictures were taken of the birthday boy and his family. After, many people (mostly men) resumed to their drinking and socializing. One by one, women came up to Can and his mother and gave him a little gold pin with a gold coin attached to it. It also had a “nazar boncuk” on it, which translates to “evil eye.” An evil eye is usually dark blue with a white circle and then a black circle within the white. It is supposed to attract the negative energy and protect you from evil, so if anything happens to the evil eye, it protected evil from happening to you. One by one, the women came up to Can and his mother giving them evil eye pins to pin onto his shirt, saying “Maşallah” and “Allah korusun.” This translates to “God has willed it,” and “God forbid/protect.” It is common for these phrases to be said to people, especially to a child or infant, during a ritual such as a birthday. After this, the women started serving tea.

The evil eye is a symbol common in everyday Turkish culture, but especially to babies and young infants. When it is given on a gold pin, it is supposed to be attached to the clothing to protect the infant. This is symbolic because it represents the intention of the people who give the pin to the baby as a form of protection. It is usually given during birthdays and other rituals. Tea is another symbol of leisure and relaxation. It is usually served after dinner and dessert is finished, and people sit back and enjoy themselves while conversing and sipping tea. Another symbol are the phrases “Maşallah” and “Allah korusun.” These are linguistic symbols that are said infants and their parents during birth and birthdays as well.

A ritual is a social act; it is not invented or created by an individual alone. By attending this birthday, people are accepting a common social order. Every person has a different role while being there. The birthday ritual is similar to the biker gang from Jill Dubisch’s “Run for the Wall: An American Pilgrimage.” The biker gang has a pilgrimage on their motorcycles every year each spring to commemorate the soldiers lost during the Vietnam War. Through my observations, it seems as if during the ritual of a birthday party, the woman of the house is the one that is doing most of the hosting and taking care of the detail work. Female friends and family of the woman help her with her child and housework, while the males usually sit back and enjoy themselves with their drinks and barbequing.

One question that I had wanted to answer through my observations in the beginning was “How do people who don’t know each other interact?” The people that didn’t know each other easily made conversation with one another. The conversations usually started with a question that asked how they knew the host, or if that little girl was their daughter. It was easy for people to talk to each other, knowing that they were all gathered for the same cause. Another question that I had “How much of the party actually has to do with the baby?” What I observed was that most of the ritual actually had to do with the socializing of people. Although people were gathered for Can’s first birthday, the hosts were more concerned with pleasing their guests, rather than spending time with their baby.

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