A cake made of eggnog and fruit appeared in front of me on the enormous dining room table, with four candles on top. Everyone began to congratulate me, smiling and singing “Las Mañanitas.” I was just 4 years old, and very shy. An overwhelming and irrepressible emotion choked my throat and I ran crying to my corner of a little room where my mom kept her sewing machine.
“These are las mañanitas that King David used to sing, and because it is your saint’s day today, we sing them to you.” So goes the first verse of the popular song that Mexicans sing to celebrate someone’s birthday. It is known in a few other Spanish-speaking countries, but not used to celebrate every birthday. The song actually refers to a person’s saint’s day, not his or her birthday. This is not important when it comes to celebrating, however, because the intention is what counts.
Las Mañanitas is now equivalent to the American “Happy Birthday” song in English, which Spanish speakers from most other countries sing with the same melody, but as “Feliz cumpleaños a ti.” Or something similar.
Just to confuse things, there is a second part in Las Mañanitas, a verse that says “The day you were born, all the flowers were born.” Some say this is actually from a different song, added to the first one. There isn’t much information available about it on Google, just a lot of confusion and different versions of the song’s origin and author. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough.
The good thing about this tradition that confuses those who are unfamiliar with it is that a person can have two celebratory days a year: one on his or her saint’s day and one on his or her birthday, with cake, gifts and mañanitas on each.
Though the “day of your saint” sounds strange in this country, it is an old Catholic tradition in other countries wherein every child, upon being baptized, receives one or more names of a saint or saints associated with the Catholic saints calendar, which covers every day of the year.
Thousands of saints’ names and situations from Christian doctrine and Biblical history in the Old and New Testaments are distributed throughout the year. Thus the names range from Adam, Eve, Moses, Peter, Michael, Jesus and Magdalene to Soledad (“solitude”) and Dolores (“sorrows”), through Angel, Sacramento, Lourdes and Pilar, the latter two referring to places where the Virgin Mary is said to have miraculously appeared.
Some time ago, when the religious traditions of Catholicism governed the lives of people more strenuously, a priest could impose one or more names on a baptized child, using the saints’ names of his or her birthday, baptismal day or both. This practice is much less prevalent today.
Most importantly, Joseph and Mary—being the parents of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God—were and are often the first names given to many Catholics, followed by one or more names, including the one they use every day. Nowadays, with priests’ control diminished and a more relaxed religious tradition, that doesn’t happen as much, and we see more and more names that are not associated with Catholic saints.
Many immigrants come from small, poor and more traditional villages where a priest still may have considerable influence, and many of these people still have “José” or “María” as the first of their names. Here, when asked, they tell us their whole name, but we choose to call them by the first of those names, though they may be known by the second of their names at home.
Therefore there are multitudes of Josés working the gardens in this country and just as many Marias cleaning houses who identify with another name. There are families where all the children have the initial name of José or María, but all have other names to distinguish them from the others in the family.
Long after that reaction of mine at age 4, I asked my mother why she only celebrated her saint’s day on Dec. 12, the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and not her birthday. She said that when she was a child, most people just celebrated their saint’s day, and she kept preferring that custom. But, little by little, people have begun to celebrate birthdays, following the custom in the United States.
Therefore, according to my mom, “Las Mañanitas” originally celebrated only people’s saint’s day, and then in some other verse—presumably from another song—began to include a mention of birthdays. Here is another interesting point: in Mexico and other countries, what is actually celebrated is not the day on which you were born, but the date you achieve one more year of life, though, of course, they are the same day.
Victor Reyes is a resident of Cotati and longtime contributor to the Light.