You might be familiar with the phrase “A very merry unbirthday to you”—but what is an unbirthday, exactly? Well, they’re absolutely worth celebrating, for one thing—and if you haven’t been observing your own thus far, this may just convince you to start doing so.
Unbirthdays—which you might sometimes encounter written with a hyphen (that is, “un-birthdays”)—have been a part of the Western cultural landscape for quite some time; in fact, they date all the way back to the 19th century. And although unbirthdays do have a particular definition, when it comes to celebrating them, just about anything goes. In spirit, unbirthdays are as much about embracing whimsy and spontaneity as they are about the “holidays” themselves.
Here’s everything you need to know about unbirthdays, from where the idea originated to how to ensure that your own is as memorable as possible.
Plainly put, an unbirthday is literally any day of the year that is not actually your birthday. That’s it—nothing more, nothing less. Indeed, the official definition of an unbirthday is simple and straightforward.
Contrary to popular belief, the term first appeared not in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Lewis Carroll published in 1865, but in its 1871 sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Carroll—the pseudonym of Charles Dodgson—included the nursery rhyme figure Humpty Dumpty as a character in Through the Looking-Glass, whom Alice first encounters in Chapter Six. It’s here that Humpty Dumpty introduces Alice to the concept of unbirthdays, remarking when she compliments his cravat, “It’s a present from the White King and Queen. … They gave it me—for an un-birthday present.”
Alice, confused, asks, “What is an un-birthday present?”, to which Humpty Dumpty replies, “A present given when it isn’t your birthday, of course.” However, Alice remains unconvinced, noting, “I like birthday presents best,” prompting the following exchange to occur:
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” cried Humpty Dumpty. “How many days are there in a year?”
“Three hundred and sixty-five,” said Alice.
“And how many birthdays have you?”
“And if you take one from three hundred and sixty-five, what remains?”
“Three hundred and sixty-four, of course.”
Therefore, remarks Humpty, “There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents … and only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”
But wait: If unbirthdays appear only in Through the Looking-Glass, and then only as a minor aside, then how come they’re so widely—and erroneously—believed to appear in the original Alice novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? One word: Disney.
The Disney Connection
Through the Looking-Glass is actually responsible for many of the characters, plot points, and other elements that we often associate with its predecessor, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; this includes the idea of unbirthdays, the characters Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and the poems “Jabberwocky” and “The Tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter.” In many cases, these associations were driven by Walt Disney’s 1951 film Alice in Wonderland, which largely followed the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while also incorporating a number of details from Through the Looking-Glass to add a little more flavor to the story.
Unbirthdays, although mentioned only briefly in Through the Looking-Glass, were greatly expanded upon in the Disney film. For instance, in Disney’s version of the Mad Tea Party scene, the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse aren’t just having a regular old tea party; they’re celebrating their unbirthdays together—and singing a song about it as Alice arrives. Then, when the Hatter destroys the White Rabbit’s pocket watch, the Rabbit, distressed, states that the watch had been an unbirthday present. Finally, the Hatter and Hare eject the Rabbit from the party while singing a short reprise of “The Unbirthday Song.”
“The Unbirthday Song,” which was written by Mack David, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston, includes the repeated lyric, “A very merry unbirthday to you”—which, in turn, is how that particular phrase became so deeply entrenched in the pop-cultural lexicon.
Later on, when the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse are called upon to act as witnesses during Alice’s trial at the hands of the Queen of Hearts, the Hatter states that he was at home drinking tea when the crime Alice stands accused of was committed; he explains, “Today, you know, is my unbirthday!” At that, the King points out that it’s the Queen’s unbirthday as well, prompting the rollout of a new tea party—complete with an unbirthday cake—and another reprise of “The Unbirthday Song.” The Hatter and Hare gift the Queen with a purple hat during this unbirthday celebration, which turns out to be the Cheshire Cat in disguise. When the Dormouse realizes there’s a cat present, the trial devolves into chaos, leading to the film’s climactic finish.
Despite the fact that Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was considered a critical and financial failure at the time of its original release, it proved to have an enormous amount of staying power. As a result, many of the film’s key details have stuck around as well—including the concept of the unbirthday. Indeed, given that unbirthdays received so much more focus in the film than they did in the source material, perhaps we’ve mostly got Disney to thank for the spread of the idea.
How Do You Celebrate an Unbirthday?
In Through the Looking-Glass, unbirthdays are shown primarily as gift-giving occasions; indeed, according to Humpty Dumpty, that’s what makes them so terrific: You have vastly more unbirthdays than birthdays, meaning you’ve got many more opportunities to receive gifts if you celebrate your unbirthday rather than your birthday. So, if there’s such a thing as an “official” way to celebrate someone’s unbirthday, according to the holiday’s source material, it’s by giving them a gift.
Meanwhile, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland adds parties to the mix: Your unbirthday—or, perhaps more accurately, any unbirthday—is an excellent excuse to throw a party. If you want to lean really far into the whole thing, throw yourself a tea party, “mad” or otherwise; if you’re not a tea party person, though, go ahead and throw yourself whatever kind of party you most prefer, which includes anything from a casual hangout to an elaborately themed bash. (Disney’s official Disney Parks Blog has some excellent ideas for full-blown Alice in Wonderland-themed unbirthday parties.)
With 364 unbirthdays to choose from, how do you pick which one to celebrate? Well, that’s totally up to you! Mooky Chick suggests that unbirthdays can be a great option for folks whose actual birthdays fall on “taken days,” such as major holidays or Leap Day; by extension, an unbirthday can also work for students whose birthdays fall over, say, spring break or summer vacation when they’re in school—times when their friends may not all be available. But again, feel free to choose any day as long as it’s not your actual birthday. Notes Mooky Chick, an unbirthday is “an official reason to gather people you really like to be silly, merry, and whatever you require from birthday shenanigans—just on a day that works more easily for everyone.”
You can also, of course, choose to turn the tables on the traditional birthday celebration in any way in honor of your unbirthday: For example, instead of receiving gifts, you might consider using the occasion as an opportunity to give gifts to all of your favorite people. Or, instead of throwing a party that celebrates just one person, you could throw a party that celebrates everyone present—after all, it’s likely their unbirthdays as well!
In the end, the beauty of unbirthdays is that you can celebrate them any way you like; there’s no right or wrong way to do it, and breaking the rules or shattering established norms is highly encouraged.
A very merry unbirthday to you, and you, and you!