Spectrum of Birthdays: HMNS Celebrates in Any Tradition!

by Rochelle Beckford and Karen Whitley

Birthdays are an event that is celebrated in nearly every culture around the world. Every culture has its own traditions. Some traditions are based on the standing of the family in the community, the gender of the child, the birth order, or religion. Here at the HMNS we have witnessed a variety of cultural birthday celebrations from all over the world. We have celebrated parties from over 35 different countries and even more cultures! Here are just a few:

Singing

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Arghya Banik, Flickr Creative Commons.

Singing Happy Birthday is a relatively new tradition in our world. While birthdays have been celebrated for well over a millennia (in fact, it was originally considered a pagan tradition!), the singing of happy birthday is less than a hundred years old. While the original song was originally written in English anonymously in 1911 and set to the tune of an American song, Good Morning to All, written for a Kindergarten class in 1893, the song has become immensely popular and has transcended borders. Some countries have translated the words into their own language while others have created their own version. Here at HMNS, we have had a lot of families sing the birthday song in English and then sing it again in the families’ native tongue. Happy Birthday has been sung in Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, Hebrew, Greek, French, Hindi, Polish, German and more! We have even sung it in ASL, or American Sign Language.

Did you know that the Happy Birthday song has been a hotbed for debate regarding its copyright? In 1935 the original publisher of Good Morning to All songbook was granted the copyright to the song (later bought out by Warner) and has held the copyright for 80 years! It wasn’t until last year during a lawsuit regarding its unlawful use in a documentary film that a federal judge declared the song public domain. So go ahead and sing away!

Cutting the Cake

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Melissa Wang, Flickr Creative Commons.

Unlike the birthday song that originated in American, the tradition of a birthday cake dates to the eastern hemisphere to early Roman times. Traditionally, the flat cakes sweetened with honey were only baked for the most important people, but by the mid-1880s a large population of the eastern hemisphere had adapted it for everyone. Of course birthday cakes have changed dramatically throughout the centuries, to where now it is hard to distinguish them from a wedding cake. In many cultures, including American, the cutting of the cake symbolizes good luck. The birthday person makes the first slice into a new birthday cake to physically signify the beginning of a new birth year.

At HMNS, we have also seen more traditions involving the cutting of the birthday cake. Many Indian families will either have the birthday child a piece, or even a few pieces, of cake and the family takes turn coming up and feeding the cake to him or her. Sometimes this is extended to only the child’s parents and grandparents, but occasionally we have seen extended family feed the birthday child as well. We have seen South American parties touch the birthday child’s shoulder and head following the singing and right before the cutting, or even pulling on the ear lobe of the birthday child for each year of their life.

Money

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Moyan Brenn, Flickr Creative Commons.

Now a days it is a very common practice to gift money or a gift card at a birthday party. Quite simply, for many people it is easier than dealing with the stress of picking out a present that the birthday recipient will like. No one wants to buy the dud present. However, there are cultural traditions regarding the gift or money that you may not even be aware of! Everyone has probably seen a person with money pinned to their shirt. If you are like me, you probably thought this was a pretty modern tradition that sprang out of nowhere. In fact, this is a tradition heavily rooted in the Cajun culture in New Orleans. From there, many link it back to West Africa and Nigeria. Like many traditions, this one has been adopted and can be seen being practiced by many people, not just a person of African descent.

Another tradition that is found in multiple cultures is the act of throwing money in the air as participants dance and sing. This is more oft than not seen at a wedding, however we have seen this adapted to birthday parties as well. The roots for this are widespread, with countries in Europe, Africa, South America, and North America all having their own take. In China, money is not thrown around but wrapped in red paper, the red symbolizing energy, happiness, and luck.

Food

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necopunch, Flickr Creative Commons.

Food can be a very important part of many families’ celebrations. At HMNS, we allow families to bring in their own food or have it delivered for birthday parties, so we are treated to a wide variety of cuisine from around the world. Some traditions we have seen are that families from the Philippines bring pancit, long noodles that signify long life. Indian families dine on dudh pakh, curry, and chutney. Korean families bring rice pudding for the entire party. Brazilian families create an elaborate dessert table for their guests to enjoy. The taste and the smells of the different foods add to the excitement of the day.

No matter what traditions that your family has for birthdays, we welcome them at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and look forward to celebrating your special day with you!

Editor’s note: Rochelle is the Birthday Party Coordinator and Karen is the Birthday Party Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

A Symbol of Culture: Francs Guinéens Paint a Picture of Life in Guinea

by Kaylee Gund

During a recent visit to the Museum’s offsite collections storage, one carving in particular caught my eye — the Nimba (D’mba). After living in Guinea for over a year, I immediately honed in on the familiar polished wood of the Nimba among the other West African pieces.

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The Nimba.

The Nimba is a symbol of feminine power and fertility, carried on someone’s shoulders around the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. It wasn’t one of the traditions in the region where I lived, but I still saw the Nimba almost every day in my village on the corner of the 5,000 FG (franc guinéen) note.

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The Nimba appears on the corner of a 5,000 FG note.

Among many other traditional symbols, the Nimba has become an expression of national pride, as evidenced by the Guinean bank’s use of it on currency and as its logo. Guinean currency is an interesting mix of national and local identity. Each denomination represents a different culturally distinct region of the country, showing important symbols and economic activities for that region.

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A gold mining operation appears on the back of a 500 FG note, paying homage to the major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture.

Haute Guinée, the eastern plateau, is featured on the 500 FG, complete with an image of gold mining on the back. A major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture, gold mining was also an occasional source of exasperation for schoolteachers, as our students would often leave for months at a time during a gold rush and “cherchent l’or,” or “search for gold.”

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As you’ve probably noticed, the number of zeros behind monetary amounts in Guinea can be a bit intimidating. Pictured above is a whopping 16,600 FG, worth a little over $2 in the U.S.

What can all this money buy?

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Bags of clean drinking water are sold for 500 FG each. Drinking water from the well is ill advised, so this is a worthwhile investment at $0.07.

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At the peak of mango season, everyone has more fruit than they know what to do with. It spoils fast with no refrigeration, so piles of mangoes are sold for 2,000 FG (less than $0.30).

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Prepared food, like this rice with potato leaf sauce, costs between 5,000 and 7,000 FG for a plate (around $1).

So many mundane things require money that it’s easy to forget what an incredible symbol it can be. Guinean currency gives a glimpse into the many traditions of its different regions, and while there is occasionally ethnic strife between groups and the road to democracy is still rocky, the entire nation is unified in using Guinean francs.

Culture is an incredible thing, and we’re lucky enough to have access to a rich treasure trove of it: from Ancient Egypt to the Amazonian rainforest, even the smallest things can hold great significance.

Next time you’re about to spend a dollar, take a look at what’s on it. You might be surprised!

Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. During her time in the Peace Corps, Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French.

Go Back in Time with the Hadza: Last of the First Movie Screening

pic 1There are fewer people connected to nature now than ever before—and no one connected to it in the same way as the Hadza. One of the last hunter-gather groups on earth, the Hadza have lived sustainably off the bounty of their ancestral homeland in Africa’s Rift Valley for at least 50,000 years. But their unique culture and way of life, including the ability to source 95 percent of their diet from the wild, has been threatened by issues as varied as continuing encroachment, aggressive tree-cutting and over-grazing.


That’s why we’ve collaborated with The Nature Conservancy to bring a special screening of the groundbreaking film The Hadza: Last of The First to HMNS on April 13. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, The Hadza: Last of The First is a call to action to establish a protective land corridor to help the Hadza survive.

“The Hadza: Last Of The First” Trailer from Benenson Productions on Vimeo.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the many organizations heeding that call. They established their Northern Tanzania project to empower the Hadza and neighboring tribes to protect their land. Through the project, the Nature Conservancy works with local partners to help the Hadza and nearby indigenous communities secure legal rights to their homeland and works to improve the Hadza’s capacity to monitor and protect their titled land, including helping to fight to extend protections for Hadza land and associated wildlife corridors, as well as protecting grazing resources for pastoralists in buffer areas surrounding Hadza titled land.

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Roughly 60 percent of Africa’s lands and waters are communally owned, so a sustained threat for millions of people is simply a lack of control. An absence of strong institutions and governance exposes millions of communal acres to risk.

That’s why the people, in Africa and around the globe, are so critical to the success of the Nature Conservancy’s Africa program. They are fighting to help local communities, governments and organizations conserve and enhance Africa’s vast array of shared natural resources.

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Film Screening, April13
Don’t miss the Texas premiere of The Hadza: Last of The First in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’ Wortham Giant Screen Theatre on April 13 at 6:30 p.m. This is a one-night-only screening with David Banks, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Africa program and the film’s producers. HMNS and Nature Conservancy members receive $5 off the regular ticket price. For advance tickets call 713.639.4629, click here or visit the HMNS Box Office.

Travel to Japan without leaving home at family-friendly World Trekkers on Feb. 15

Editor’s note: Today’s blog comes to us from Jim Matej from the Okinawa Cultural Association of Texas.

All cultures are marked by their festivals and celebrations. In Okinawa — Japan’s southernmost prefecture — the Buddhist custom of Obon is celebrated every summer and has given rise to Japan’s most internationally recognized performing art: the Eisa dance.

Obon began more than 500 years ago. It is believed that each year during Obon, the ancestors’ spirits return to this world in order to visit their relatives. During the three-day event, graves are visited and food offerings are made at temples and household altars, ending with traditional dances called Bon-Odori (Obon dances).

The unique culture of Okinawa was established during the reign of the Ryukyu Kingdom. During that time it was a hub of maritime trade in Southeast and East Asia. This was due, in most part, to a tributary relationship with China’s Ming Dynasty. Ryukyuan ships, often provided by China, traded at ports throughout the region including China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Java, Malacca, Siam, and Sumatra.

See authentic Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko at HMNS' first ever World Trekkers event Feb. 15!With the abolition of clans and the establishment of prefectures during the Meiji Restoration of the 1800s, the Buddhist dances in Okinawa began to transform into Eisa performances. Today, in the local villages and towns of Okinawa, Eisa is still performed in its traditional role as part of the Obon festivities.  The youth of each community gather to form their own Eisa groups. On the last day of Obon, they march through the streets and stop in front of homes to perform a traditional send-off for the visiting ancestors.

Koza City (present-day Okinawa City) began the transformation to modern Eisa dance by establishing the Traditional Okinawan Dance Festival in 1956.  Although held at the same time of year as Obon, this Eisa competition is open to all community Eisa groups in Okinawa. The festival has since evolved into a festival representing the Okinawan culture as a whole.

Okinawan Eisa Dance was brought to the world stage by Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko (Ryukyu Kingdom Festival Drums). Since the early 1980s, RMD has elevated this religious and festival dance into a performing art. The choreography is created in Okinawa and is a dynamic blend of traditional Eisa and Karate forms with contemporary influences incorporating both traditional folk music and modern rock music. Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko is now a worldwide organization with chapters throughout Okinawa, Japan, Latin America, and the United States – RMD Texas being one of those.

See authentic Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko at HMNS' first ever World Trekkers event Feb. 15!In traditional Japanese costumes — with Jikatabi’s (calf-high white cloth shoes) flashing and arms swinging in synchronized movement, rhythmically pounding drums — this high-stepping, high-energy drum and dance troupe has performed worldwide, including at venues like Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In 1995, in association with Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko, the people of Okinawa incorporated the Eisa dance into a celebration of summer itself. The “Summer Festival in Naha” now has the world’s spotlight shinning on five days of Eisa being performed in the streets of Okinawa’s capitol city. The last day is capped off with the unbelievable “Ten Thousand Eisa Dance Parade.” Up to 10,000 Eisa dancers process down Kokusai Street, lighting up the city with their colorful costumes and jubilant dance, all proud to be part of Okinawa’s most internationally recognized performing art.

Join HMNS for its first-ever World Trekkers festival celebrating the art, culture and cuisine of Japan and see authentic Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko performed up-close by RMD-Texas.

World Trekkers will take place in the Grand Hall on Friday, Feb. 15 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Attendees can opt to buy a passport to track their cultural comprehension through each World Trekker festival, spotlighting Egypt (May 3), France (Aug 9), and Russia (Nov. 15). Tickets are $9 for the public; $7 for members. Click here for more information or here to purchase in advance.