Another September 22 — the birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo — has just passed. In our latest Library piece, TORn feature writer Tedoras reflects on Letter #214 from The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien and examines Tolkien’s thoughts on birthday customs in hobbit society and culture.
Beyond birthdays: examining Tolkien’s Letter #214
The epistolary nature of Tolkien’s literary existence is more than prodigious. If any book so illuminates the man, his deepest thoughts and truest character, it is The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
We may glean more insight through this collection than perhaps any other. And of the hundreds of letters included, letter 214 particularly piques my interest.
As often the case, it was the careful (or rash) observations of an inquiring fan that sparked Tolkien’s response; and, just as often, we are invited to enter further into the mind of the man as we enter further into Middle-earth.
The general query that elicited the response that we now call letter 214 centers, most intriguingly, on the notion of birthdays; specifically, the notion of who gives whom a present in hobbit culture. Birthday customs and traditions, we learn, are firmly entrenched tenants of all hobbit societies; this should come as no surprise, given the enduring importance of kinship to that folk. And Tolkien, thus, addresses birthdays from a social angle.
In this letter, Tolkien introduces us to the term ribadyan, the formal name for one celebrating his or her birthday. In Old English, he renders this name as byrding, derived from byrd meaning “birth.” The customs surrounding birthdays, he explains, had “become regulated by fairly strict etiquette” (Letters 290). It was custom, contrary to the belief of many, for the byrding to both give and receive presents on the big day.
The reception of gifts, Tolkien elaborates, is “the older custom” (Letters 291). The roots of this tradition lie in hobbits’ fidelity to kinship. The gift received, therefore, served more as a recognition, a ceremonial token of that hobbit’s “incorporation” in his specific house or clan (Letters 291). Tolkien explains that in older times, the first such gift of recognition one received was the formal announcement of his name after birth to his assembled family; however, over time, this gift manifested itself as a physical present.
Yet, still none of our present notions of quantity are applicable; the byrding received but a ceremonial gift from the head of the family, and never anything from his parents save in case of adoption (a rather curious, undeveloped condition).
More importantly perhaps, though certainly more characteristic, is the giving of gifts. This is not limited to kinship, yet remains a sort of recognition of affection, gratitude, and continued goodwill. This tradition begins as early as the third birthday (around the time hobbits become “talkers and walker,” also known as “faunts”).
These gifts are supposed to be productions of the byrding, and as the task of creation and innovation may be hard on a small hobbit, children begin simply with the offering of flowers to their parents (Letters 291). Tolkien describes this conveyance of a good produced or grown by oneself to another as a form of “thanksgiving.”
However, not everyone at the birthday would receive such a gift. The “expectation of receiving,” as Tolkien so expertly calls it, is limited to “second cousins or nearer kin, and to residence within 12 miles” (Letters 291). (It is from this tradition that the expression “twelve-mile cousin” arose to demean those misers and pinch-pennies.)
Often, heads of house so recognized all those who lived under their roof or worked in their service; and, of course, withholding a present where it was rightfully due, as conferred by status or habituality, was “a rebuke and mark of severe displeasure” (Letters 292).
Yet, Tolkien says, “custom did not demand costly gifts,” nor the showing off and grand display thereof; hobbits preferred a more surreptitious approach to the giving of gifts, one rid of all pomp and tendency to induce ignominy at such expenditure (Letters 292). Most hobbits of average status in their families and of modest means would give simply as they could afford; thus, the Professor adds, Bilbo’s birthday party was considered “a riot of generosity even for a wealthy hobbit,” especially since any hobbit invited to a birthday party was customarily given a present (Letters 292).
Even those dearest acquaintances that could not make it to the party for whatever reason were afforded that honor, as a gift would be sent along with their invitation. (I think it is fair, in the case of Bilbo’s farewell party, to assume that only, or at least, those members of the “gross”—the 144 special guests—all received presents. Imagine having to dole out nearly 150 gifts on your birthday!)