Many happy returns

At church back in the day there was a part of the Sunday a.m. service where we’d acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries. The birthdays would come up and put some kind of token offering in the little yellowed canister whose contents were collected each month and donated to the children’s home in St. Louis and then we sang happy birthday to you etc. The anniversaries would come next and put their token offering in a purple canister and its contents went to the Baptist Home up the road in Ironton. We sang a song to them to the tune of the Happy Birthday song, but with different words, namely the line “many happy returns” took the place of “happy birthday to you” (and, if I recall rightly, “God bless you and keep you” replaced the final “happy birthday dear so-and-so”). As I kid, I never understood why we didn’t just sing “happy anniversary to you,” and squish all the syllables of “anniversary” into the “birthday” slot. But now in adulthood, where I find myself regularly wishing many of my coupled friends happy anniversary (and each time, humming the long-ago anniversary song from church under my breath all day long), I’m just as curious about that phrase “many happy returns.” Where did it come from? It sounds like something that would have flowed from the pen of a hard-working Midwest evangelical male in the early to mid-twentieth century, with its vague financial implications, conflating religion, family, and the Protestant work ethic. But returns on what? That token investment to the old folks’ home (“another 20 and I may get a room with a view”)? Return trips to the little purple canister (“hope you don’t die this year”)? Taking back bad anniversary gifts, but doing so “happily”?

Immediate update: Commenter Matt G pulls through with the answer: One Lady Newgate is credited with having made the first recorded use of the phrase. Of course! But who knew there was this interconneted network of information one can access quickly and easily to find curious factoids about quaint phrases. What’s it called though … the interweb? Netline? Sumthin like that.

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  1. Matt G wrote:

    Consider this my application for internship.

  2. Janice wrote:

    I always assumed that it meant, “May you have many happy birthdays.”

    At our church, we sang:

    Many happy returns on the day of your birth,
    May sunshine and gladness be giv’n
    And may the Dear Father prepare you on earth
    For a beautiful birthday in Heaven!

    I don’t remember hearing that anywhere except in church.

  3. Jude wrote:

    Janice I just came across this, I know you wrote it years ago but thought I would comment anyway…what you have typed is what my kids call “the family birthday song” my parents learned it in the early 60’s from a minister from Florida…how fun that someone else remembers it!

  4. Jay Johnson wrote:

    I grew up in Collinsville, OK in the 70’s and at the “Community Church” I attended, we recited it almost exactly as Janice quoted it. Interestingly, we would say, “and may YOU prepare yourself, here on earth”.

    I think I prefer Janice’s version!

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