Must it be ‘Happy Birthday’?

Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice after washing one’s hands, even sung silently, must be one of the most uninspiring Government directives ever given. OK, I can understand why they chose it – everyone knows it and it offends nobody, but all the same, you must admit that it’s dull.



A Tudor kitchen

I was thinking of this, when a sentence in a Tudor recipe sudden;y popped into my head: ‘Stir for as long as it takes to say a paternoster.’ Pater noster is Our Father in Latin and it means, of course, The Lord’s Prayer. How long does it take to say, I wondered, so I took off my watch and timed it. 

It took 22 seconds. So, instead of singing (silently) Happy Birthday twice, saying The Lord’s Prayer is one alternative.

Remember, clocks were very expensive in Tudor times. A wealthy parish church might have a clock – but it wouldn’t have a second hand, of course, but it did chime the hours. The lord of the manor might own one but ordinary country people either told the time by the sun or, if baking in the kitchen, said as many paternosters as the recipe demanded!


W. B. Yeats, photo by George Charles Beresford 

Another option is W. B. Yeats’ poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, which comes in at number 10 (out of 100) in The Nation’s Favourite Poems. It’s certainly one of my favourites.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven


  Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

  Enwrought with golden and silver light,

  The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

  Of night and light and the half-light,

  I would spread the cloths under your feet:

  But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

  I have spread my dreams under your feet,

  Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


This takes fractionally over 20 seconds. I have always loved this poem. I have printed it out in triplicate and stuck copies above the kitchen sink and my two wash basins. Not only do I enjoy saying it out loud while washing my hands – I now know it off by heart.

Or what about the following:

Thomas Ernest Hulme (1883-1917) Courtesy of Wikipedia

Thomas E. Hulme was killed in action in World War I in 1917, and only a handful of his poems survive. He liked short, pithy, cheerful poetry and the poem below is typical.


The Embankment (The fantasia of a Fallen Gentleman on a Cold, Bitter Night)


  Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,

  In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.

  Now see I

  That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.

  Oh, God, make small

  The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,

  That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.


Again this takes just over 20 seconds.

So, if ‘Happy Birthday’ doesn’t appeal, I offer you the above suggestions but any suitable poem of no more than eight lines should be OK.

A happy and healthy Easter to you all.

Elizabeth Hawksley



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8 thoughts on “Must it be ‘Happy Birthday’?”

  1. I love that tread on my dreams poem. I stole an idea from some random Facebook post and use, Space, the final frontier, etc. From Star Trek. Found it quoted in full on Wiki. The whole thing takes just 20 seconds. Like you, I now know all of it by heart and not just that famous split infinitive line.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth – but ‘to boldly go’ isn’t in ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’!

  2. Very interesting! I’d have to post a copy of the poem next to the mirror. More suggestions?

    For kids, sing the alphabet song.

    For geeks like me? “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” And hum a little.

    1. Love your suggestions, June! Elizabeth Bailey also likes the Star Trek mission statement! See below.

  3. Those are truely lovely poems and much more pleasant than Happy Birthday.
    I must admit that I don’t sing anything to myself, though if I did, I’d consider trying one of these.
    Happy Easter.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Huon. Happy Easter to you, too. Several people I’ve talked to about this just count to 20 whilst hand-washing; they were a bit mystified by the poems. I realized that perhaps it’s only arts people, as opposed to science people who even think of reciting poems instead!

  4. Loved this especially thinking about alternative accompaniments to handwashing. I have never recited/sung happy birthday but not being very refined it’s been a tongue twister: how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood; a woodchuck would chuck as much as s/he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

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