What Is the Bible’s View?
What About Celebrating Birthdays?
DO YOU enjoy getting together with loved ones? Gathering to ‘eat, drink and rejoice’ in moderation receives favorable mention in the Bible. (Eccl. 8:15; 9:7; Job 1:2, 4, 5) The Scriptures tell of certain “feasts” that servants of God held on special occasions. (Gen. 19:3; 21:8; 2 Sam. 3:20; 1 Ki. 3:15) Through Moses, Jehovah commanded the nation of Israel to observe each year’s joyful “seasonal festivals.” (Lev. 23:2, 37, 38) Clearly, the Creator realizes the joy that can come from festive occasions.
This does not mean, however, that all types of celebrations meet God’s approval. Many that are popular in the world today heap honor on persons and institutions that the Scriptures portray as ungodly. Frequently celebrations have roots in false religion. The Scriptures command worshipers of Jehovah to avoid any connection with false worship. (2 Cor. 6:14-18) What about celebrating birthdays?
According to the Bible, the day a baby was born was usually one of rejoicing and thanksgiving on the part of the parents. Rightly so, for, “Look! Sons are an inheritance from Jehovah; the fruitage of the belly is a reward.” (Ps. 127:3; Luke 1:57, 58) It is clear too that during Bible times servants of God were aware of their time of birth. For example, the Scriptures specify the ages of Noah and Abraham at various points during their lives as well as giving their full ages at death. (Gen. 7:6, 11, 13; 9:28, 29; 12:4; 17:24; 25:7) Under the Mosaic law, members of the tribe of Levi kept records of their ages so as to know when they were old enough to begin serving at Jehovah’s sanctuary. (Num. 4:46, 47) Does this suggest that worshipers of God back there held yearly birthday celebrations?
Persons who think so sometimes point to Job 1:4 and Hosea 7:5. The first of these texts mentions Job’s seven sons holding “a banquet at the house of each one on his own day.” The second tells of Israelite princes ‘sickening themselves because of wine’ at a festival “on the day of our king.” Were these festive occasions birthday parties? Evidently not. Professor G. Margoliouth writes in Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics: “The occasion of the feasting referred to in Job 14f. is not clear. As the seven days appear to have been consecutive, they could hardly have been birthdays.” “The mention of the ‘day of our king’ in Hos 7:5 may quite naturally be taken to refer to the anniversary of the king’s accession to the throne.”
Actually, the Bible mentions birthday celebrations only in the cases of Egypt’s Pharaoh during the days of Joseph and Herod Antipas of the first century C.E. (Gen. 40:20; Matt. 14:6-11) These celebrations, however, appear in an unfavorable light, for both were held by persons who did not worship Jehovah. Professor Margoliouth further observes: “The birthday celebrations in the Herodian family . . . were, no doubt, an imitation of Græco-Roman customs of the time.”
Interestingly, the same encyclopedia says of the ancient Greeks and Romans: “The giving of presents on particular occasions was often dictated by superstitious fears, as in the case of birthday-gifts?’ The article notes that the practice of giving these gifts “was formerly accounted to possess a magic virtue.”
It further explains that the special purpose of birthday celebrations in ancient Greece “was to invoke the aid of the Good Demon (agathos daimon) at a time when—on the border-line of two periods—evil spirits were especially prone to extend their influence.”
In view of the pagan origin of many birthday customs and the fact that the only Scriptural accounts of birthday celebrations are in connection with false worshipers, neither the ancient Jews nor Christians early in the Common Era celebrated birthdays. Concerning the latter, historian Augustus Neander writes: “The notion of a birthday festival was far from the ideas of the Christians of this period in general.” At about the middle of the third century C.E., Origen remarked in his commentary on Matthew, chapter 14: “Some one of those before us has observed what is written in Genesis about the birthday of Pharaoh, and has told that the worthless man who loves things connected with birth keeps birthday festivals; and we, taking this suggestion from him, find in no Scripture that a birthday was kept by a righteous man.”
During the fourth century C.E. however, something happened to change matters. What? Professed Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on the false date of December 25. The book Curiosities of Popular Customs points out: “With the celebration of Christ’s Nativity returned the celebration of the nativities of ordinary mortals.”
As noted at the beginning of this article, getting together with friends for joyful fellowship is a fine thing. As for gifts, Christians heed Jesus’ counsel to “practice giving,” for “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” (Luke 6:38; Acts 20:35) The Bible does not establish rules as to when or how often during a year persons can enjoy such festivities. (Rom. 14:5) But good judgment and discretion are always in order.
The God-approved festivals mentioned in the Scriptures furnish helpful principles for Christians. These occasions were in honor of God and called attention to his mighty acts. (Deut. 16:1-15; Lev. 23:42, 43) The yearly celebration of the Memorial of Christ’s death, too, centers attention on God and the role of Jesus Christ in God’s purpose. (Matt. 26:26-29) On festive occasions, as at all other times, Christians must honor God.—1 Cor. 10:31; Rom. 14:6.
A birthday party, however, is a day set aside regularly, each year, to honor a human. Could not such a procedure easily result in excessive adulation of sinful creatures? (Rom. 3:23) When the apostle John fell down to worship before a sinless heavenly angel who had shown to John visions of future events, the angel cautioned: “Be careful! Do not do that! All I am is a fellow slave of you and of your brothers . . . Worship God.” (Rev. 22:9) Are not we today even more inclined toward adulation of created persons?
The Word of God nowhere commands birthday celebrations, mentioning them only in connection with persons who did not worship the true God. (Gen. 40:20; Matt. 14:6-11) Because popular customs at birthday parties are rooted in pagan superstition, neither the ancient Jews nor early Christians celebrated birthdays. True Christians today, too, obey the command concerning false religious practices and those who engage in them: “‘Get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing’; ‘and I will take you in.’”—2 Cor. 6:17.