We all have birthdays, of course. Most of us know when our birthday is, and consider the date a fact. It’s probably registered somewhere, on our birth certificate, our driving licence, our passport. But if you go back a few generations you’ll find that birth dates are rather more fluid than you might think.
In the past people might have altered their declared age – and hence their implied birth year – for any number of reasons. I’m sure we’ve all heard of young men who lied about their age to enable them to join the military in times of war. Both men and women would misrepresent their age at their marriage so that the woman appeared younger than the man – or so that they were both old enough to marry without parental approval. And I have several ancestors who have only aged six or seven years in the ten years between censuses.
It’s not only the year you can’t trust. In the early days of birth registration in England there were fines for late registration. Rather than declaring the correct date of birth and paying the fine, parents would give a later date of birth for their child to avoid the fine. And, once in the formal records, that later date of birth would then follow the child throughout their life. If the family celebrated the birthday on the correct day, this could lead to a lot of confusion as to when their birthday really was.
Of course, it’s much harder to create an incorrect birth date in today’s information age. But as a child, at what age do you learn and understand the significance of your date of birth? Perhaps around four or five, when you start school and learn about the calendar. If as a child you lose those people who know your birth date from first-hand experience, and you don’t have access to any records, how can you be sure you know the right date? You could tell someone that date in good faith, but equally how confident can they be that you’ve got it right?
In my Choices and Consequences series, the heroine, Leonie, is separated from her immediate family by the time she’s five years old. But she knows her birthday because it’s a distinctive date. As she says in the prologue to Weave of Love:-
“It’s my birthday,” she said to him proudly. “My first real birthday. The one that doesn’t happen every year.”
Her birthday is leap day, 29th February, a distinctive date, one a child can remember without knowing the actual date, and an adult can interpret from limited information. After all, there’s no other date that doesn’t happen every year. Of course, that causes its own problems as Leonie describes in Strand of Faith:
The big problem was that if it wasn’t a leap year I didn’t know whether to have my birthday on the last day of February, or the first day of March.
But now you know why Cloth of Grace, the fourth and final book in the Choices and Consequences series, launched on 29th February 2020 – it was Leonie’s real birthday and it would have been a real shame to miss it!