Next week you’ll get a papal overdose through two columns but I’m mentioning him, and the Nazarene, today, albeit obliquely.
For a country so obsessed with birthdays—public and private workers can even take a paid birthday leave—it’s surprising that we have never adopted birthday calendars, which I first discovered in the Netherlands when I was studying there many years ago.
Paradoxically, like the Dutch, I don’t believe in big birthday bashes; in fact, I’ve written several times about the way we Filipinos spend on tight budgets, sometimes even borrowing money, for birthday parties, often just to show off.
The birthday calendar just might bring some sense to birthdays, which should be a way for us to reflect on the passages in our own lives, and the lives of our significant others.
Let me describe the Dutch verjaardag calendar, a version of which is the day calendar that you will occasionally find in other western countries.
These calendars have the year’s months listed, usually one month per page, each page with a photograph or illustration. The pages have numbers according to the days of the month (including 29 for February), but you will not find the days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, etc.). So what you have is a kind of perpetual calendar that can be used for many years.
Instead of the week or the day, there is a line on which you can write the names of people whose birthday falls on that date. The Dutch often include the year of birth.
What’s most quaint about this Dutch practice is the place where you hang the calendar. Think now of a place that will not escape your attention, so that each day you will know who to call or visit or send a gift to.
I should send you a prize, a birthday calendar, if you said the toilet! Some of the Dutch are even more specific about the calendar having to be in what is called a half-toilet, the tiny one with just a latrine and without a bath, usually found on the first floor in the hallway.
As an anthropologist, I’ve been intrigued by the choice of this toilet because this is the one that guests use. So I suspect the birthday calendar is also meant for public consumption, a way of saying, “I care for many relatives and friends.”
There is a specific etiquette involved, a cardinal rule being that you never, never write your own name on other people’s birthday calendars. A website, stuffdutchpeoplelike.com, has all kinds of funny stories around this rule, including someone who did write his name when he was a child and was so traumatized by adults scolding him that he has never kept his own birthday calendar as an adult! Another one, a non-Dutch person, wrote his name thinking it was a requirement for everyone who used the toilet.
The birthday calendar is sacred, something you fill out by hand, to remember close friends and relatives. This means that if you’re not sure about someone becoming a friend for life, then you should write the name in pencil. The website I mentioned has a funny account from a woman whose mother-in-law entered her name, in pencil. It proved to be prophetic because the one who did so is now an ex-mother in-law.
I was taking extra time looking at my birthday calendar on New Year’s Day, and it brought back many memories. The oldest person listed was “Maquel (1917),” the grandmother of my ex-partner, making her a kind of ex-grandmother-in-law. The first time I met her was in 2001, and we clicked right away.
Maquel—for “Mama Raquel”—passed away some years back, and I’ve wondered if I should do what some of the Dutch do, which is to include anniversaries for deaths, marked by a cross. Others include weddings, marked by a double ring, or the infinity symbol, if you believe marriage is forever.
Back to my own calendar: For Nov. 19 I have two entries: Mom (1920) and Mamita (1919), the latter being Dr. Mita Pardo de Tavera, who was one of my first bosses, a mentor, and a second mother.
The youngest ones listed in my calendar are my own children, and a nephew born last year to a cousin.
September has the biggest number of entries, reflecting the pattern of births in the Philippines as a whole; we seem to make babies a lot in December. Most of the entries for the entire year were colleagues from an NGO, Health Action Information Network, and looking at their names reminded me of the Filipino diaspora. I found Joyce, whose birthday is coming up on the 14th, now in Canada, and Myrna (birthday just celebrated in December) somewhere in the South Pacific. There’s Philip… Oh, should I have a wedding entry for his marriage to Christopher last year?
I didn’t find names I would love to erase—my ex-partner remains listed—but I can imagine the therapeutic value for some people to have some kind of calendar erasure ritual. Certainly beats going to Quiapo and visiting the Nazarene (there, I told you I’d write about him), and then lighting one of those black candles that the vendors explain are “pang-konsensiya”—to prick the conscience of low-life spouses, lovers, work colleagues, or business partners. I will remind you that we have a pope known for his calls for more mercy.
There were more classmates in high school than in college, and many are my fellow professors. My PhD adviser at the University of Amsterdam is listed, and seeing his name, I remembered it was in his home where I first discovered the birthday calendar… and his birthday. His year of birth, 1933, reminded me that he had e-mailed recently, hoping I would visit him soon.
My calendar has traveled with me, from Amsterdam to Manila, from one home to another. It is now in my UP house on a stopover, and will return in a few years to my main house, maybe to be passed on. My son is already a birthday-calendar enthusiast: He stormed into my room one day, after “morning duty,” to say that he missed Tiny, a dachshund, one of two well-loved pet dogs listed on the calendar. My son wrote the latest birthday entry, that of his youngest sister.
Some years back I did find at Papemelroti a locally-produced day calendar that used beautiful illustrations from Robert Alejandro’s “Antukin,” a collection of folk songs and lullabies. But I no longer see it even in that store.
I haven’t seen any other local ones, so you may have to order from abroad. Or make your own. Google “images for birthday calendars” for ideas. Making your own can be a good family project, especially as you choose photographs or illustrations to mark each month.
I still have three Dutch birthday calendars, which I bought because of the graphic designs. The one I use has Van Gogh paintings. Another one, unused but a favorite, only has four pages, with photographs of the same tree as it looked during each of the four seasons. People, trees, seasons—these calendars are truly chronicles of our times.
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From Pius IX to ‘Pio Nono’