Why do we celebrate “special” dates? (aka: Why are we celebrating labels?)

Leia em português.

Special dates! Christmas, New Year, Birthday. All special dates, right? Independence day, Thanks giving, Easter, the list goes on. We all love these days. After all, they’re all holidays (except for Birthdays, for some odd reason) so we can get together and have some fun with our friends and family (except for those who have to work even on holidays due to the nature of their job). We party, have fun, enjoy some great food and burp a lot afterward.

But, in all honesty, what are we celebrating? Are we even celebrating something? Or is is just another excuse to have some fun?

I’ve heard time and time again that these dates, specially X-mas and New Year are important dates, when we should meet with family members we don’t see throughout the year and all that stuff (“it’s only once a year, so let’s go”). But then, why does it have to be in one of those two dates? Social convention, I guess. The whole world agrees that those two days are the days we should call it a day early so people can enjoy their days, making it easier to gather a bunch of people who have different schedules, with different off days. So the special factor of these days is basically the universality of schedules, I guess?

Oh, right, X-mas is the day Jesus was born, despite studies having shown that it’s highly unlikely (something about the position of the stars and so). Well, it seems like even the bible itself bears evidence that Jesus was not born in December. But we also have lots of other deities being born that day. Still, this is not the point.

Then we have New Year. The day when a year starts. The day we restart the cycle of 365 minor cycles, which is just the sum of cycles of 24 even smaller cycles, which we can break down, yet again, to cycles of 60 at least twice. Yes, a year is nothing more than 365 days, which is nothing more than 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, 31536000 seconds, 1536000000 milliseconds and so on and so forth. Though you can trash this on leap years. Actually, nothing I said here is actually correct, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that it’s correct. But hey, it’s the time Earth takes to complete an orbit around the sun! Only that it’s not true. Still, is that even a reason to celebrate?
“Oh, look! Earth completed an orbit around the sun yet again! Party time!”

Why not celebrate every time the Moon orbits around Earth? Or every time Earth’s completes a rotation around it’s own axis? Aren’t these equally important and awesome feats?
Also, the year starting point changed through history and civilizations so it’s a good sign that it’s just an arbitrary point. And nothing amazing happens on January first (not perihelion, nor solstice or equinox nor the beginning of a new season). It’s neither a truly world wide celebration.

Birthday is another day people love to celebrate for some odd reason. “It’s your day!” “It’s your special day!”
No, it’s not. Your birthday marks the point in time when you complete another round of 1536000000 milliseconds. In other words, you survived for another 1536000000 milliseconds and thus, Party time! What? Guess it’s important to notice how 1536000000 milliseconds is pretty arbitrary. Again, why the orbit of Earth around the Sun? Why not Moon’s orbit around Earth? Maybe this is just a geocentric heritage?

Birthday is just a label. Another label. Just like Christmas, New Year, Monday, Saturday, March or 1989. An arbitrary label that people love to celebrate. A social institution, that shadows something that is more important.

And we love labels so much that we even pay for it. That’s what capitalism is doing. Selling labels. And people are buying it. Because there’s a social institution allowing labels to be a factor of differentiation. Yes, we love labels. We want labels. We need labels. How else are we going to find our own identify and set us apart from everyone else? (Do we really want to set apart?)

But capitalism is not to be blamed. We’ve loved labels since long before capitalism was even a thing.

We had Pepin, the Short. We had Richard the Lionheart. We had The Knights who says Ni. For the commoners we had, X the merchant, Y the Smith. A label is important to carve your mark in history with an impact.

We love labels so much that we even fight because of them. We justify our acts with them.
“They have a different label than ours! That’s why we fight them!”
“Their label is different so they’re inferior!”
“I’ve never seem that label before. Better avoid them!”

Oh humans, how lovely are thee.

When did labels became more than just what the word itself implies? When did people start to fight because of labels? Hard to say. Maybe way back when humans started living in societies? When agriculture became a thing and, with it, the concept of private property? That would be my guess.

Either way, I still find interesting how some people like to celebrate certain dates because they’re “special”. I have no clue what makes them “special” besides the synchronization of the schedule (an not even all of them can).

New year is just another day of the week. Easter is also just another Sunday like any other. Birthdays too are pretty common days, if you ask me. Nature does nothing different on these days. Earth doesn’t dance when New Year hits. Mars doesn’t congratulate Earth for completing a full orbit. The Moon doesn’t wave hello on Easters. And your birthday is not “your special day”. You don’t born every year. You born only once. That day, if any, is the most special one. 365 days after the date you were actually born is just another day. The same goes for 730 days after.

So why do people enjoy celebrating their birthdays so much? Birthdays aren’t any more special than yesterday. Really, people should be celebrating every single day they wake up because every single day is special. You, and every other living human being, are a probabilistic defiance. You being alive is already a miracle. Have you ever thought about the probability of you, just like you are, being born? Zero. Or close enough.

It’s not hard to reach that conclusion. Just think about the probability of that one sperm fertilizing that one ovum. That by itself already gives us a really, really low probability. Reading from some sources here and there, we can assume that in a man’s ejaculation there’s an average of 180 million sperms. In just one. Obviously this number varies according to various factors but the difference between 100 mi and 300 mi is not important for this magnitude. For women, the number of viable eggs also varies, but we can assume about 450. So we want the probability that that one sperm will fertilize that one egg. We have to remember that 180 mi of sperms is what we find in one ejaculation. We need to make an estimation of how many sperms an average man will actually produce. That’s pretty hard to calculate, but we can guess it’s a pretty big number. Maybe reaching the trillions? Or even quadrillions? Either way, it’s already a one chance in a trillion or quadrillion. I think we can all agree that that is pretty small.

Then we have to consider that for you to be born, both your parents had to be born. That’s also a one in a trillion or quadrillion chance for each of them. And we have to consider the probability of them actually meeting, liking each other and maintaining a relationship long enough for them to decide to have offspring. But that, compared to the probability of you and them being born is pretty negligible. But them we have to consider the probability of your grandparents being born. And your great-grandparents. And so on and so forth. Obviously the probability of the older generations being born is higher because there were less people, back then arranged marriage was much more common, also, people would have more children because children were the ones who would take care of their old parents, but we also have to consider the probability of the children actually surviving enough to reach mating age. Regardless, considering all probabilities, your chances of actually being born exactly how you are is zero. But there you are! You and another 7 billion human beings, all with a probability close to zero of being born the way they are.

So no, your birthday is not a special day. Every day you’re alive is a special day. And you surviving for just another day is also another miracle. What your body does to keep itself alive is just amazing. Specially when you just overdo during said “special day celebration”.

Now, I know all this is just me being over-rational, but it still surprises me that we can’t take a day off when it’s our birthday and yet, most of the world takes the day off on the supposed birthday of a guy born in the middle of the desert (or something like that, despite how unlikely that would be), according to some people that says it’s written in some book (which is probably not true but nobody cares to actually check) that was also written by some other random people a few hundreds of years after said guy died. Oh well.

Three extra links:
CGPGrey’s video about leap year, but it’s good to have an idea about how 365 days is not a year. Video link

Ali Binazir post on the probability of being born, which contains a pretty cool infographic. Some of the data used seems pretty random and made up but I’m guessing it’s not an easy estimation to make. Blog post