"The Day of the Month reminds me of my Birth day, which will be on the 30th. I was born Octr. 19. 1735. Thirty Seven Years, more than half the Life of Man, are run out.—What an Atom, an Animalcule I am!"
Diary, October 19, 1772
Birthdays were not celebrated the way we currently do. There is a myriad of theories regarding the beginning of what are now “standard traditions.” Differing accounts trace birthday candles to Greek celebrations of Artemis, the 18th century German Kinderfest, cakes to Rome and Germany, and the iconic “Happy Birthday” song from a pair of schoolteachers and a poem entitled “Roy’s Birthday.”
It is likely that Adams never experienced anything like this.
In fact, the above diary entry is one of the few mentions by Adams of his own birthday. And as you can hear from Adams in the video, he spent his birthdays doing very little celebrating. And that seemed to be how he wanted it – especially during his Presidency.
A rather sizeable celebration for George Washington’s birthday had started small, and grown from the end of the Revolutionary War onward, according to Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis. What was called the Birth Night Ball was practically as much a national festival as July 4th, according to Custis.
Adams was not interested in American leaders being given such a celebration.
to Abigail Adams, March 11, 1797
The Feast that Succeeded was one of those Things which are not to my Taste. I am glad you went— I went too.— But those Things give offence to the plain People of our Country, upon whose Friendship I have always depended. They are practised by the Elegant and the rich for their own Ends, which are not always the best. If I could have my Wish there should never be a Show or a feast made for the P[resident] while I hold the office.— My Birth day happens when Congress will never Sit: so that I hope it will never be talked of.
Whether he meant it or not, Adams got his wish. Outside of New England, Adams’ birthday was not celebrated as widely as Washington’s. But he thought that obligatory celebrations of leaders’ birthday was best left to European monarchs, not American Presidents.
And while it is not a mandatory celebration, I personally, voluntarily celebrate John Adams’ birthday. I am glad you were born, Good Sir.