Happy Birthday: so much more than a hand-washing jingle

8:45 pm on 6 April 2020

Writer and curator Te Awhina Arahanga* on the history of the song Happy Birthday'and the reason it is used when we wash our hands during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Birthday cake at a children's party.

Photo: 123RF

First person: Te Kapehu, my two-year-old moko, is playing with his play dough with his mummy. It's that icky sticky fun stuff - a combination of flour, oil, food colouring and sometimes salt - remember we all played with it once as Kiwi kids? I'm watching him now continue that NZ tradition via a phone screen, a Samsung 7, 100mm by 70mm, on Messenger. The physical distance between us, according to Google maps, is 16h 17min (1,132.3km) via State Highway 1, the philosophical distance is from the Moon and back.

He and his mummy have made with their dough Turbo the Snail and pizza with tomatoes and olives. He then decides to make a lolly pop which he pretends to lick. He then decides he needs pasta. His mummy returns with five dried pasta spirals that he immediately implants into his green creation as if they are candles on a cake and begins to sing to me:

Hari huritau ki a koe

Hari huritau ki a koe

Hari huritau Taua

Hari huritau ki a koe

Happy Birthday Taua

It's not my birthday but he wants to sing it over and over.

Over the past few weeks I've been singing 'Hari Huritau ki a Koe Happy Birthday' every time I wash my hands. My friend Steph said that's how long we should wash our fingers, digits, palms and lower wrist to keep that Covid-19 at bay.

She always has good advice so from that moment on, which seems like a year ago but really just two weeks, I have been applying soap and singing to myself Happy Birthday.

Te Awhina Arahanga.

Te Awhina Arahanga. Photo: Supplied

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to (fill in the gap) happy birthday to you.

I add different names to the jingle to fill in the gap - whanau who I haven't kept in touch with and those I do, friends I haven't kept in contact with and those I do, those in my little community of Kaikoura, the communities I have lived within - Devonport (the original bubble) Taumutu on the southern shores of Waihora/ Lake Ellesmere, Christchurch City and Kawerau.

Those in the bigger worldwide space and those in the inner realm bubble - to Mother Earth Papatuanuku who had warned us over and over again look after me and we didn't, to Jacinda of course, the guys at New World, the truckers driving their 18 tyres from the north to the south to keep the supply going, the train and ship controllers, Air New Zealand, the petrol dudes at the garage, the voices over the phone at the medical centre, the lab technician working out if my auto immune is all good, the neighbour who works at the local chemist, the guys emptying the rubbish bins, the postie, the local businesses who had to close, Lilly who supplied our town with roti and ….(fill in the gap).

By the way I haven't and will not ever sing Happy Birthday to any world leader who spreads hatred, thinks about money rather than humanity, is neither compassionate or forgiving or orange.

It takes 19.16 seconds, recorded on my Samsung 7, for Taua (grandmother) to sing happy Birthday to Te Kapehu. The World Health Organization recommends we sing Happy Birthday twice. That's 40 seconds on average no matter what language or who you decide to send birthday wishes to.

But why has Happy Birthday become this jingle we must jangle at this very personal moment of washing ourselves? It is simple - it is a jingle jangle we all know no matter where we live in Aotearoa or where around the world we live. It is our link to commonality. And it is so much more.

The history of 'Happy Birthday'

The history of the song 'Happy Birthday' is as complicated as the journey we now contemplate in our new normal of Covid 19. It's a simple song we can all recite but is fraught with complications, copyright and legalities.

In 1893 two sisters Patty and Mildred in Kentucky USA composed a ditty for their kindergarten class 'Good Morning to You All'. The lyrics, although basic, weren't the issue, it was the rhythm of words that transpired. The jingle jangle.

By 1912 'Good Morning to You' became 'Happy Birthday to You'. It is unclear who wrote the lyrics for 'Happy Birthday' but by 1931 it was being recited in Broadway theatrical productions. And then it went slightly crazy as multi-national companies, publishers and film producers - especially Warners Brothers - fought for that copyright.

For a while Warners held the ability to charge anyone who publicly recited 'Happy Birthday'. A documentary based on Martin Luther King Jr. would never be released because of the recording of a pubic celebration of 'Happy Birthday'. They couldn't afford the copyright. Smaller independent film producers retaliated and took Warners to court on the premise that 'Happy Birthday' was a public entity and could not be held by a commercial property.

US judicial opinion agreed 'Happy Birthday' could be shared and sung there was to be no restrictions.

Even with the legal challenges of who could sing 'Happy Birthday', that little melody would become the most recognisable and recited song not only in the English speaking world but, across the multiple languages of our planet. Here in Aotearoa in Te Reo Maori there are two lyrical adaptations Ra Whanau ki a Koe and the version Te Kapehu sings Hari Huritau ki a Koe.

It is not known when or who translated our Te Reo version, the rhythm of both, of course, stays at the same pace and structure of 'Happy Birthday' yet there is a slight difference in the Te Reo and English meanings.

I'm not a Te Reo specialist nor a linguist but I like to think that Ra Whanau ki a Koe and Hari Huritau ki a Koe is sung with a collective voice and purpose acknowledging the celebration of whanau, of love, of compassion and of strength in unity.

There is a sadness that comes with 'Happy Birthday' to you - it can remind you of ageing, the loneliness of being alone on your birthday, and of those we can never ever sing 'Happy Birthday' to ever again.

Diane a local volunteer at the museum heard me reciting 'Happy Birthday' while soaping up and rinsing. For her it was too hard to recite she said she had sung it too many times in her life time.

My mother had the delightful ability to turn a birthday into a catastrophe. She never ever wanted any fuss, she always just wanted a kiddie cone ice cream from a dairy en route to share fish and chips at the beach where we would sing 'Happy Birthday' as ice creams dripped down the cone and seagulls pestered us for the dinner scraps. Simple. No fuss at all.

But no. Mum, no matter if it was her birthday, a whanau member, a friend or even a complete stranger, she had this ability to cry as soon as you started singing 'Happy Birthday'. And when I say cry I mean tangi tangi tangi. It was terrible. As she aged her wailing would take on more tears, last longer and she would now add a thumping of her hand onto her right leg. It becomes very hard to sing 'Happy Birthday' when your mother is an emotional mess. Today I understand why. She was lamenting the loss of all those she would never ever sing 'Happy Birthday' too ever again. I cringe at my lack of judgement and today appreciate why those tears fell from my mother eyes.

Thankfully there is also a multitude of birthday comedy, giggles and laughter shared when singing 'Happy Birthday'. There are those awkward moments too such as Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday' to the American President JF Kennedy for his 45th birthday in 1962. Still away from the public spectacle I'm sure we have all had those occasions of WTF - where the candles on the cake have exploded into flame, when you can't find a lighter or match to light the candles or someone has forgotten to bake the cake.

Singing Happy 'Happy Birthday' without a cake, without candles a glowing on top, can make for less of a culinary experience. It was noted recently by researchers from Harvard University and University of Minnesota that indulging in a ritual before eating for example singing 'Happy Birthday' pre birthday cake, heightens your enjoyment of food.

Ironically and with a sense of oddity 'Happy Birthday' is no longer just a song to heighten our taste buds. Today we are now singing 'Happy Birthday' with a cake of soap. Not with a cake backed with sugar and yumminess. It's not for that enjoyment. It is for our survival, for our country and for our planet. We now sing 'Happy Birthday' at the bathroom sink to be calm, to be kind and to break the chain.

No caption

Photo: 123rf

In a few days' time Te Kapehu's mummy will be celebrating her birthday. He's already getting in the practice with his play dough with pasta and singing Hari Huritau ki a Koe. No doubt he will try his very best to bake a real cake with his daddy hopefully without too much mess and stress. He will get to lick the bowl and the spoon.

As the realities of our Covid-19 'new normalities' sink in, the realisation is as our whanau that stretches from Kaikohe, Kaikoura, Christchurch and Dunedin at a distance of 23hrs 22min (1667km) will not be able to be physically together especially when Te Kapehu has finally finished decorating his mummy's birthday cake, his masterpiece. However, we are going to attempt to. Via Messenger we are going to try to cook the same meal at the same time and with the same ingredients. We are attempting to replace that physical interconnection with technology and commonality.

Our whanau has a strong sense of competition so before we even start singing 'Happy Birthday' during our online party we will turn this opportunity into the Olympic Games under a new sports inclusion known as 'The Great British Bake Off blended with MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules'. Maybe my little whanau takes it to the extreme as we always want to be winners.

There is no such thing as second. It's a competitive streak that I think we share with many New Zealanders. We like to win whether it be in our sporting codes, artistically, scientifically, academically, intellectually, financially and economically. We like to win. We got this.

Now even more so there's this sense of team camaraderie that resides in us especially for all those who are keeping our country alive and safe. We are winners. We got this.

For those in our essential services to be strong and to win. We got your back. We got you. As my Dadda would often say, no matter if it be in cricket or in life 'keep your eye on the ball and play with a straight bat.' For non-cricket players this means be strategic, never assume your next delivery from the bowler will ever be the same and that the field payers will adjust to your weakness. You must concentrate and look for opportunities a single run is just as important as 4 or 6. More importantly protect your wicket and play as a team not an individual. Be wise, be calm and keep your eye on the ball.

During Dadda's 50th birthday we placed every candle we could find (around 90 in total) on his cake baked by my sister. Because she is the bomb cake maker. Unfortunately, once the candles were lit it turned into an inferno and our singing of 'Happy Birthday' turned into hilarity as everyone tried to blow the candles out before the local volunteer Leeston fire brigade turned up.

Thirty-one years ago on the 3 April my daughter Nga Whatuhuia was born, she is Te Kapehu's mummy. I look forward to that day Friday 3 April 2020 when I can sing 'Happy Birthday' to her even if she is a million emotional miles away - from the moon and back via Jupiter, the furthest star and galaxy.

Because of this, on that day at 9am and 6pm I'll sing Happy Birthday, Ra Whanau ki a Koe, Hari Huritau ki a Koe (fill in the gap) as it is her birthday and not because I need to sing 'Happy Birthday' while I wash my hands with soap. I will sing it with the probabilities that it will be musically inept, off key and flat. Nonetheless for some strange reason it gives me hope not just for me but for us. All of us.

We will sing 'Happy Birthday' happily and off key to my tangiweto mother, cricket wise Dadda, sister who bakes the bomb cakes, to Baden and David Attenborough, Papatuanuku, Tangaroa and Ranginui. To Te Kapehu, his mummy and daddy, his uncles, aunties, koro, nannas and cousins.

I will also sing 'Happy Birthday' to everyone in Aotearoa with a bit of kia kaha, kia maia, kia a manawanui be strong, be brave, be steadfast - blended in to fill the gap.

Hari huritau ki a koe

Hari huritau ki a koe

Hari huritau (fill in the gap)

Hari huritau ki a koe

Ra whanau ki a koe

Ra whanau ki a koe

Nga mihi ki a (fill in the gap)

Ra whanau ki a koe

Happy birthday to you

Happy birthday to you

Happy birthday to (fill in the gap)

Happy birthday to you

(And then there's always that bloody person at the end that damn well sings out … and many more).

*Te Awhina Arahanga is a curator and writer fascinated by the collusion between the natural world and humanity. Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Atihaunui A paparangi, Ngati Hauiti ki Rata, Rapuwai, Waitaha, Mamoe, Ngai Tahu.

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