Birthdays, Taxes and Military Service

Baby5x5Once upon a time a baby was born. It was bathed in fluids and was slippery and squirmy.  The child’s survival was quietly celebrated and the household business carried on as usual. A mother or two may have noted its arrival in a Bible or journal: my second child arrived during the blizzard of 1867; my daughter was born on the 8th of March; my son was born shortly after my mother died. But most families many centuries ago, didn’t record the day a child was born.

Unrecorded birth dates meant most people didn’t know their true age. And I wonder if people worried about their age or fretted about their birthday like some do these days.

I’m not saying birthdays aren’t important, but some individuals—genealogists and non-genealogists alike—often put too much emphasis on this date. In fact, some get stressed out about it, as if it is the end all to end all if the correct, evidence-supporting date is not found.

However, it is just a date. There’s nothing magical about it. Sometimes, we have to accept that general dates are all we’ll ever find. General dates don’t fit neatly into the database of a family tree program, and analysis data sheets may be smudged, but it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t make you a failure as a genealogist.

I wonder if people would fret about the marking of their birthday if they knew the reasons births were recorded in the first place; it wasn’t to throw a big bash when you turned 50. The reasons were more practical. Governments sought to record births for tax purposes and to determine the available of military manpower: “Happy birthday. You can now start paying taxes, and by the way, report to the army Monday morning. Have a nice day.”

Based on these fact, it’s no wonder parents didn’t report the birth of their children. Their parents had probably done the same for them, hoping they would avoid or put off taxes and military service.

The church began registering births in an attempt to gain a clearer picture of the population. However, there was no set standard and if the church was destroy, so too were the records. By the mid-1800s, government agencies had begun to take over this responsibility. However, there was no penalty for not registering a birth, and many parents living with the old fears of taxes and war, did not report births.

By the early 1900s, many developed countries had laws pertaining to birth registration. In1989, 191 countries of the United Nations signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child stating: All children have the right to a legally registered name and nationality.

This may not seem like a big deal to Canadian citizens, but it may for the millions of children born in the world who go unregistered.

It’s a small paper but it actually establishes who you are and gives access to the rights and the privileges and the obligations of citizenship. ~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


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