A recent study at the University of Southern California found that the coronavirus had created significant shifts in people’s behavior. Among the top findings: 85 percent of people reported washing their hands or using sanitizer more often than before, 61 percent reported following social distancing guidelines and twenty-two percent reported stockpiling essentials like food and water.

Speculation has been going on for months about the life-changes we’re sure to see as a result of COVID-19.  For me personally I’ll miss the human contact and will much more circumspect about hugging, even with my grandkids.  But there is one societal change I will welcome with open arms—the end of the Happy Birthday ritual in chain restaurants.

We’ve all experienced those clunky; off-brand versions of the Happy Birthday song being sung by T.G.I. Friday’s and other chain restaurant wait staffs.  The positive part of these birthday observances is they’re not the monotonous drone of “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you…” a ditty I’ve long felt was written to embarrass the individual when being serenaded in public.

When these celebrations occur in public settings, like a restaurant, the birthday boy or girl had dozens of strangers staring at him or her; many of whom are annoyed because they either don’t give a damn or the singing just interrupted their nice quiet conversation.

Meanwhile, the wait staff becomes irritated because it slows their service—and they work for tips.  And if your waitperson is in close proximity to celebratory table, too often he or she is obliged join in the singing while your plated burger & fries sit drying out under the kitchen’s heat lamps.

Once upon a time I thought chain restaurants used their own birthday jingle as a type of branding, but that wasn’t the case – the reason chains avoided the song was because they didn’t want to pay royalties.  “Happy Birthday to You” was originally composed in 1893 by a kindergarten teacher in Louisville, Kentucky using the title ‘Good Morning to All’ as part of a larger project to create music that catered to of children.  Beyond that, it’s really unclear where the birthday lyrics originated or how the song was popularized.

Nonetheless, legal battles raged for years over the ownership of “the song” and whether or not it should be in the public domain.  Then, in 2013 a class-action lawsuit challenged the song’s copyright and demanded the current copyright owner return all previous royalties it had collected for HBTY.  In February 2016 the suit was settled and “Happy Birthday” was officially put into the public domain.   As an aside, prior to the settlement, even using the HBTY song in a movie meant paying a royalty.

The Happy Birthday song takes about ten seconds to sing, although to the recipient it can seem like twenty minutes.  And the one thing I’ve always found a bit amusing is how birthday person is forced to smile all through the song whether or not they’re in the mood.  I don’t know about you, but about halfway through the song my self-consciousness increases as I become aware everyone is staring at my frozen grin.

Of course the real coup de grâce occurs when the birthday cake arrives and the individual is forced to endure the insufferable remarks about the number of candles along with a series of interrogatories about his or her birthday wish.  Sometimes I think the cake ritual is designed to keep the individual feeling self-conscious in case the singing didn’t do the trick.

It’s interesting to note that the Happy Birthday Song is arguably the most frequently sung English song in the world, surpassing even “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

And while most adults can do without the serenade, according to a  study conducted by Harvard and the University of Minnesota, there are actual benefits to singing it.  The study found that indulging in the ritual before eating our cake heightens our enjoyment and helps us to really savor those extra 800 calories—so there you go.

Quote of the day:  “I remember when the candle shop in our neighborhood burned down; everyone stood around singing Happy Birthday!”—Steven Wright


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