What do people mean when they say “Happy birthday?”

It’s a phrase uttered all over the world. I received birthday wishes from China, Mongolia, Korea, and all throughout the US. Yet why do we say it? It’s a quick, one-off phrase, said in passing in the hallway or in a quick social media post. A smile, a wave, cake, candles, songs, laughter.

When I say happy birthday to an old friend, I want them to know how our friendship has enriched my life. How meeting them has changed me in a profound and positive way. My birthday greeting is rooted in the past.

When I say happy birthday to an acquaintance, I bring in my hopes for the future. If I have gotten to know them well enough to sincerely wish them happy birthday, I come with the hope that our friendship will continue to grow. My birthday greeting looks to what is to come.

When I say happy birthday to a stranger, I give them my good tidings for the moment. I may not know them well enough to know what this year has meant to them, and I may never run into them again, but I can still celebrate today with them. My birthday greeting is in the present.

A birthday is an opportunity to celebrate life. Because as hard as life can be sometimes, there is so much beauty to it. Each of us only has a fixed number of birthdays. To quote xkcd: “Remember, every second counts toward your life total, including these right now.”

Thank you for the birthday wishes, friends. I am 27 years old now (28 in Korea!), and every day is a gift.

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