In honour of my birthday this December, I plan to celebrate, not by burning candles, or fossil fuels, or money, but by running an extra kilometer.
Come to think of it, I will be burning a type of fuel, and if you consider 55 is old, you might even think of it as a kind of fossil fuel. Running will require my cellular processes to oxidize the carbon compounds stored in my body, translating energy into motion and heat.
Traditionally, birthdays are celebrated by the opposite action – by feasting, by consumption of fats, oils, goodies and goods. The ability to concentrate energy, whether as goods or as fat, is a measure of the success of a living entity; a triumph of a life force over entropy or the tendency towards randomness. It can be no accident that many of our celebrations, like Christmas, Winter Solstice and birthdays, involve consumption of fats and burning of candles.
I’m not sure how far back in time we humans became aware of ourselves and thus, our victory over non-existence. When did burning candles begin to symbolize birth, the triumph of life over death, the feelings of joy and of hope?
The origin of celebrating our birthday does not recede quite as far back into the mists of time. It is believed to date back to the cult of Mithra, originating in Persia and adopted by the Roman Empire. The celebration borrowed many of its customs from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a festival that, among other things, was a time to give small presents and eat, drink and be merry. Coincidentally, Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th, which is the same date as my birthday.
It seems a lucky coincidence that my birthday, Saturnalia and Christmas all come at the darkest time of year, requiring the use of candles or artificial lights to symbolize the return of our sun, the rebirth of life and the promise of spring.
And yet the burning of candles, the oxidation of carbon to produce energy in the form of heat and light also connects us back to a different birth, far earlier in time and space. A birth that gives us all a cause to celebrate our existence – no matter what time of year it is.
“Most of the carbon supporting life on Earth was forged by stars that never exploded,” writes astronomer Ken Croswell.1 “These stars cast the carbon into space when they blew off their outer atmospheres and became white dwarfs.” The other building blocks of terrestrial life, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, also share a starry birth.
We are all born of stars!
I feel exhilarated to change the celebration of my birthday from burning a fossil fuel to burning the fuel in me. Adding an extra kilometer to my run brings a promise of extra energy as the New Year unfolds and the days get longer. As if, by my action I myself become more like a glowing candle, or even, a star!
1Ken Crosswell, PhD. The Cosmic Origin of Carbon. Jan 2006. HYPERLINK “http://kencroswell.com/OriginOfCarbon.html” http://kencroswell.com/OriginOfCarbon.html
Luisa Richardson is an environmental educator, biologist and drive-by-philosopher living and working in Campbell River. She is also a Certified Heritage Interpreter and eco-tourism guide.