Mary Dejevsky

The depressing truth about January birthdays

Don’t we have it hard enough?

  • From Spectator Life

You can change practically anything about yourself these days, from your appearance through to your gender. But one thing remains practically immutable: your birthday. And here some of us are markedly less fortunate than others, as those of us who made our entry into the world in early January well know. Having a birthday at this time of year means that, in birthday terms at least, you have drawn a very short straw (and it probably won’t have a cocktail attached). 

We early January babies already face quite enough dampers on our celebrations without the addition of a prohibition clause

The first difficulty is simply party fatigue. This was less of a problem when I was growing up than it is now. Then, with rationing still a family memory and nothing like the choice now available in supermarkets, Christmas was something akin to a super-Sunday – with a roast chicken, all the trimmings, and a home-made Christmas pudding, lubricated perhaps by a glass of Bristol Cream or ginger wine. New Year was for Scotland. Other countries did fireworks. 

The excesses of today (think M&S food advertising), with tables groaning under the abundance of every possible delicacy and bottles galore, now leaves a large part of the population with both a collective hangover and a guilt complex about overindulgence. By the start of January, no one is in any mood to resume partying. Everything ends in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Then it’s back to work after what has become for many the best part of two weeks off. There have been too many celebrations packed into too few days and there is just not room for your birthday.  

The calendar problem was only compounded for me when I married someone whose family celebrated Orthodox Christmas. Now we had two lots of Christmas, plus New Year, in the space of two weeks. My birthday became an appendage. 

There was another problem with the timing. Growing up, and this was the temptation for well-meaning but perhaps hard-pressed parents to do a deal: you can have an extra-big, expensive present shared between Christmas and your birthday. Any pluses this might have had were negated by my gradual realisation that the same never seemed to apply to my other siblings, born outside this benighted time of year. Any Christmas deal they might have struck had long been forgotten when it was their turn to blow out the cake candles – and how could anyone (except the early January crowd, of course) not have a separate present on their actual birthday?  

Other problems transcend family dynamics. Even if you want to defy festive fatigue and celebrate, the reality is that the weather in early January is invariably awful, which limits what you can do on your ‘special day’. Garden parties, boat trips, anything in the open air or involving transport is a hostage to fortune. 

On one birthday, I arrived home late after a horrendous drive back from work in freezing fog. One way or another, transport conspires to seize up; London Tube strikes, like the one that was planned for this week, are typical. There are also floods. Or it might snow, in which case not only is there no transport, but people are so thrilled with the rare chance to cavort in the white stuff with the kids that your birthday is, quite frankly, not the priority. 

The next problem is that everyone is ill – except probably you. My worst experience was my 21st (when 21st birthdays were still something). I spent several hours of it at the central post office in a provincial Soviet city where I was a British exchange student, awaiting a call from my parents (which did not happen). I returned to the student hostel to find that the annual flu quarantine had just been decreed, so no guests were allowed in (something we have now learned to call lockdown). So it was that my room-mates and I perched on our beds with a libation of indescribable sweet wine and what remained of someone’s New Year chocolates. 

2022, with the pandemic seemingly winding down, was also memorable – for the constant fear that Boris Johnson was suddenly going to introduce the restrictions he had considered, and resisted, at Christmas. The restrictions didn’t happen, so the on-off party was suddenly on – propelling my sister and me on an emergency morning shopping expedition akin to the TV show Supermarket Sweep for the necessary provisions. The guest list was nonetheless depleted by those down with Covid, those not down with Covid, but testing positive, those worried about social gatherings – and those who, quite reasonably, believed the party would not happen. 

Now that we can have parties again, the malevolent gods who preside over early January babies have found a new way to keep us down. The lingering effects of overindulgence have spurred not just a guilty conscience, but a remedy. Cue: ‘dry January’.  Oh yes, we would love to come to your party, your dinner, your whatever, and we’ll be delighted to come because it’s you, but forgive us if we don’t touch a drop. But don’t worry, we’ll bring our own.

Which, of course, is fine, and may be a laudable health precaution. But, sorry, everyone. I’m not doing ‘dry January’. It’s my birthday, for heaven’s sake. Why not choose February or March to abstain, or the month of your birthday? Why the month of my birthday? We early January babies already face quite enough dampers on our celebrations without the addition of a prohibition clause.  

I can offer only two possible remedies. The first would be a GoJanuary social media page, designed to track down others so disadvantaged with a view to arranging parties just for us. The other would be to ditch early January altogether and designate an official birthday, when the weather is warmer, your friends are not ill, and the country isn’t recovering from a solid week of feasting. Why, in this supposedly democratic age, should an official birthday be the exclusive preserve of the monarch? So, I look forward to seeing you all sometime in June, and here’s to many happier returns!