Yesterday I turned the grand old age of twenty-three. Leading up to the day, I continued to have mixed feelings about the nature of birthdays in general, particularly how they are contemporarily celebrated.

Something that I have grown to inexplicably despise more and more is when people sing ‘happy birthday’ for me. I can’t put my finger on it, but I find the song to be a complete drag. It’s not to the do with the awkwardness, I just can’t stand it.

Furthermore there are a number of customs related to birthdays that I often seem to find to be a bit of a drag. Having people around to see you open your presents when they will likely see them or can be told about them later, for example.

Now I know you might be thinking that I’m just whining about things, but hear me out for a bit. I promise there’s a point to all of this.

I was a bit anxious coming up to my birthday because I was feeling more and more like birthdays don’t really mean anything. They are an excuse to get presents for people, to spend money, to go to new levels of effort and sweat to make someone feel special.

Now, depending on your mindset, you might read the above paragraph in one of two ways. It took until my birthday itself (or rather, the night before) to realise that the above was positive, and ought to be positive. I don’t generally like people to fuss over me too much, but then… who doesn’t? It’s nice to feel special that way. It’s nice to have people care about you that much that they don’t mind making an extra effort.

Birthdays might seem as though they become less meaningful the older we get, but I’m starting to see why they’re so important. They’re not an excuse to buy things, but an excuse to celebrate the life of a fellow human being – one we care about a great deal.

We so rarely have the opportunity to really express how much someone means to us that we should seize upon the opportunity, however artificially ingrained in tradition and culture it might be. It is still a valuable day. Each birthday happens but once in someone’s life, and each one should be celebrated.

Now this is an argument that can, perhaps, be applied to a number of different days that occur throughout the calendar year. Some of the most notable include mother’s and father’s day (both only slightly traditional, and now very corporate) and Valentine’s Day (pretty heavily corporate nowadays), as well as a number of religious/cultural events for which I won’t go into too much detail.

Mother’s day is an event with varying degrees of history in countries around the world. Some have history going back almost a hundred years, whereas others only introduced the idea within the past decade or two. Mother’s day was a day to celebrate the gift of motherhood, and show appreciation for mothers all around. So, yes, still a little corporatised in its origins, but there were very good intentions.

Father’s day started in a similar manner, almost exclusively in the United States in its origins about a hundred years ago. It was a day to celebrate fathers and their support for families and leadership. Today it is celebrated in very much a similar way to Mother’s day, and is treated much the same by companies. It’s an excellent opportunity for them to make money, after all.

To an extent it also helps to reinforce some of the more gendered stereotypes of society (but I swear I’m not getting all Tumblr on you). One can see this a little clearer in the kinds of advertising that is produced around those times. The question is… does this mean we shouldn’t participate?

Well I can answer that by further speaking about a day that has only become more contentious (and more monetised) over time: Valentine’s day. For many, it is considered an obligation that they buy something for their significant other, such as flowers, chocolates, and any other number of mushy lovey-dovey items they are told they ought to purchase. There is also a growing resentment for the day amongst many people who shun the monetised aspect, thinking it’s a waste of a day and just a money-grabbing charade.

They’re both kind of right… and both quite wrong. Valentine’s day is a day of celebration, but there is no real onus on people to celebrate it in its modern form to one’s significant other. There is only the imagined pressure, which is societal in nature. On the other hand, it is not a day that is entirely devoted to money making and economic enterprise. There is the very real core of a day of caring and compassion within it. It should not be considered an obligation, but rather, an opportunity. It is the chance to have a day set aside for someone in your life that you really care about. It’s the opportunity to remind them of your love.

Sure, you can do this by purchasing all kinds of gimmicky items for them, but that is hardly necessary. It’s not about the buying, it’s about the caring. What matters most, with Valentine’s day, as well as Father’s and Mother’s days, is that you show them you care. To come full circle, I’m sure you can see why birthdays matter so much now, too.

It need not be about a money grabbing obligation. It’s an opportunity.