Joyeux anniversaire (also known as Joyeuse Fête in Canada) is a translation of the original American song, "Happy birthday to you", dating from the late 19th century. Let's focus on the origins of the song before we learn more about the birthday traditions in France.
The story of Joyeux anniversaire
This short song dates from the late 19th century. The sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill introduced the song "Good Morning to All" to Patty's kindergarten class in Kentucky. They published the tune in their 1893 songbook, Song Stories for the Kindergarten, with Chicago publisher Clayton F. Summy.
But there are differing opinions about the song's origin.
Two different opinions on the song's origins
Kembrew McLeod claimed that the Hill sisters probably copied the tune and lyrical idea from other popular and similar 19th century songs, including Horace Waters' "Happy Greetings to All", "Good Night to You All" also from 1858, "A Happy New Year to All" from 1875, and "A Happy Greeting to All", published in 1885.
American law professor Robert Brauneis disagrees, pointing out that these earlier songs had quite different melodies.
The first appearances of Happy Birthday to You
The full text of "Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print as the last four lines of Edith Goodyear Alger's poem "Roy's Birthday", published in A Primer of Work and Play.
The first book to include lyrics to "Happy Birthday" to the tune of "Good Morning to All" was in 1911. However, there are earlier references to a song called "Happy Birthday to You", including a 1901 article in the Inland Educator and the Indiana School Journal.
In 1924, Robert Coleman included "Good Morning to All" in a songbook with the birthday lyrics as the second verse. Coleman also published "Happy Birthday" in The American Hymnal in 1933.
A song in the public domain since 2017
The music and lyrics are in the public domain in the European Union and the United States. The copyright expired in the European Union on 1 January 2017.
The song: Joyeux anniversaire!
Lyrics, music, free download... let's learn more about the popular song:
The lyrics in French
The original song of Joyeux anniversaire has 1 verse.
Joyeux anniversaire (+ prénom)
Translation of the lyrics into English
Here is the translation of Joyeux anniversaire into English:
Happy birthday (+ first name)
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No need to type name or email 😀
The Birthday traditions in France
The French word "anniversaire" is derived from the Latin annus "year", and versus, "which turns". It, therefore, refers to the annual return of a day marked by an event, particularly the birth of an individual.
A distinction is made between :
Birthdays in the Ancient Times
Birthdays were not always celebrated, and when they were, it was usually a famous person's birthday. In ancient times, the first birthdays celebrated were those of the gods. The Egyptians or Persians knew the date of their birth.
The Old Testament mentions the birthday of the Pharaoh of Egypt in the story of Joseph (Genesis 40:20).
"Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials [...]" (NIV)
In the 5th century BC, according to the historian Herodotus, the Persians marked the day with a larger-than-usual meal.
Birthdays among the Greeks
For the Greeks, the anniversary of death was celebrated with offerings on the graves. On the other hand, the day of the birth of a warrior, considered a demigod, was observed after his death.
The Greeks believed that a protective spirit was dedicated to each human. This spirit was present at his birth and watched over him during his life. This spirit had a mystical relationship with the god whose birthday corresponded to the day of the individual's birth. The name of this spirit, 'daimôn', gave rise to the word 'demon'.
Birthdays among the Romans
The Romans also subscribed to this idea and celebrated the birthday of the "birth day" by thanking the daimôn who had watched over them since their birth.
The day of birth was celebrated regularly, the natalice (from the Latin natalicia, birth anniversary meal) as a 'private and public religious rite'. It was reserved in particular for emperors, whose birthdays gave rise to sacrifices.
This belief in the daimôn has found its way into the notions of guardian angels, fairy godmothers and patron saints.
In the New Testament
In the New Testament, a birthday feast is mentioned in Mark 6:21 when the daughter of Herodias gets the head of John the Baptist:
"Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee." (NIV)
No birthdays in the Middle Ages
With the advent of Christianity, this tradition was considered pagan: a Christian began to live on the day of his death when he entered the kingdom of God. For this reason, Catholics celebrated their patron saint.
At the beginning of the 13th century, Marco Polo, in the Devisement of the World, describes the festivities on the birthday of the Chinese emperor Kubilai Khan.
Birthdays in medieval France
The celebration of birthdays was rare during the Middle Ages, and the date of birth was rarely known. This explains why historians do not know the exact date of birth of personalities (Clovis I, Charlemagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine, François Rabelais).
Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church was hostile to celebrating birthdays because of its pagan origins and because birth was a reminder of original sin.
Celebrating Saints' Days
The Catholic Church preferred to promote the feast of the "patron saint" (le jour du saint) corresponding to his or her baptismal name or death (natalice or funerary anniversarium) considered as the dies natalis, "day of birth" (at the resurrection).
For example, every one bearing the name of Pierre (Peter) was celebrated on St Peter's Day on 29 June, Christophe on 21 August and Marie on 15 August.
There were, however, three exceptions to this rule:
- the 'Nativity of Jesus Christ' (that is Christmas)
- the 'Nativity of St John the Baptist', (St John's Day)
- and the 'Nativity of the Virgin Mary'.
These three Christian feasts have also taken over the cults linked to the solstices and are not strictly speaking anniversary dates. No one knows the date and year of Jesus Christ's birth for the simple reason that in ancient times birthdays were not marked as they are today.
The Reformation reintroduced birthdays
From the 16th century onwards, with the development of humanism and an awareness of human identity, the Protestant bourgeoisie in Northern Europe decided to celebrate their birthdays.
Protestants saw these celebrations as a good way of shifting attention away from the saint's day, in line with the rejection of the cult of saints.
When the French started celebrating birthdays
Gradually, celebrating the anniversary in France spread to the bourgeoisie and the working class in the 20th century.
Even at the beginning of the 20th century, many French people named after the saint honoured on their birth celebrated their feast day on their birthday.
Since the 1950s, the celebration of birthdays has become commonplace under British influence: the party among friends is becoming more common, underlined by a vast commercial pressure to which children are very receptive.
A personal landmark in time
A real landmark in time, birthdays are celebrated every year in childhood and even in adult life. The eighteenth birthday, an important milestone, marks the accession to adulthood in France.
Young men and women acquire various rights and responsibilities: voting, the right to consume certain substances (e.g. alcohol, tobacco), the call to military service (until 1997 in France), the driving licence,
If the birthday continues to be celebrated with the family, only the round numbers (20 years, 25 years or a quarter of a century, 30 years, 40 years, etc.) allow the circle of friends to be enlarged, sometimes without the recipient's knowledge: it is then un anniversaire-surprise (surprise birthday) or une surprise-partie (surprise party).
The birthday cake and the candle
The birthday cake (le gâteau d'anniversaire) that carries the candles is often very elaborate and decorated, without having a unique shape like that of the ancient Romans and without a particular recipe.
An ancient origin rich in symbols
According to authors Ralph and Adelin Linton in "The lore of Birthdays" (New York, 1952), the birthday cake echoes the honey cakes of the ancient Greeks. They were round like the moon and lit by candles before being placed on the altars of the temple of Diana.
The symbol of candles
Popular belief attributes birthday candles to the magical power to grant wishes. Lit candles and sacrificial fires have always had a special mystical significance since man erected altars to his gods.
The candles are, therefore, a tribute to the birthday child; they bring honour and good luck to the child. Birthday wishes and good wishes are an integral part of the celebration. This belief has its roots in magic. Birthday wishes can do good or harm because one is closer to the spirit world at that moment.
The rising flame of the candles symbolises the growing life. As many candles as there are years are put out, thus visualising the passing of the milestone, and these candles are to be blown out at once to remind us of the power of the growing breath of life.
Children's birthday parties
A birthday is often considered a special day for a person who usually receives special attention from family and friends. This is especially true for children who look forward to their own birthdays.
A family meal
A child's birthday is celebrated with a family meal, possibly with the godfather and godmother present, a party with friends and children of the same age group or "une boum" (party) when the child is older (around ten or eleven).
Sometimes a third occasion is given to the youngest children to blow out their candles at kindergarten or school around a cake brought by the parents.
This amplification corresponds to the development of leisure in general, with the gift and the 'cult' of the table in France.
A party with friends
Between children, the reception of friends is very official. It can be the first ritual of socialisation. Invitation cards (les cartes d'anniversaire) are sent or distributed in advance, and the decoration of the house and the buffet, which includes sweets and sweet drinks, is elaborate. The clothing (chic or cool, depending on age) is carefully chosen.
The birthday cake ceremony
When the candles decorating the cake are lit, the moment, often highlighted by photos, is intense. The lights are then lowered to make the moment more solemn, and the assembly sings "Joyeux anniversaire".
Once the song is over, there may be a silence during which the recipient may make a wish inwardly before blowing out the candles. Traditionally, if all the candles are extinguished at once, the wish will be fulfilled.
Another superstition associated with birthday wishes is that they will not be fulfilled if the person reveals the wish.
Then comes the time to open the presents.
The guests give the child, the king of the party, presents: these are essential and help with socialisation. On this occasion, the child learns the rules of civility, whether receiving or giving.
The small gifts given to the friends present are also obligatory, as during a rite of integration. They are reminiscent of the sugared almonds distributed during a christening to make the child accepted by the host community. Gifts and counter-gifts constitute a system of exchange with a monetary value that is important in the long run, even if they come after Christmas gifts.
After le goûter d'anniversaire (birthday snack), it's time for fun games, like musical chairs, a treasure hunt, etc.
Visits to the zoo, theatre, circus, and puppet shows are also very popular.
It is also customary to send a birthday card to the person, especially when you are not physically present, to wish them a Joyeux anniversaire!