Birthday Celebrations—How Did They Get Started?
A PUBLIC figure recently celebrated his 70th birthday—only he didn’t call it that. “It’s the 31st anniversary of my 39th birthday,” he quipped.
Not everybody feels the same about birthdays. Little Johnny may eagerly anticipate the day with its cake, candles and presents. Mommy, on the other hand, may not wish to be reminded of her age.
Some people even decline to celebrate their birthdays for reasons of conscience. Does that seem strange? Actually, if you had been a member of the early Christian church, you would have refused to celebrate your birthday.
“The celebration of the anniversary of an individual’s birth, though customary among the ancients, was originally frowned upon by the Christians,” notes William S. Walsh in his book Curiosities of Popular Customs. Historian Walsh goes on to quote from early Christian writings on the subject, saying: “Thus Origen, in a homily on Leviticus xii 2, assures his hearers that ‘none of the saints can be found who ever held a feast or a banquet upon his birthday, or rejoiced on the day when his son or his daughter was born. But sinners rejoice and make merry on such days.”’
Where did early Christians get their distaste for birthdays? Partly from the Jews. “In the Bible there is no instance of birthday celebrations among the Jews themselves,” points out M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, adding: “In fact, the later Jews at least regarded birthday celebrations as parts of idolatrous worship.”
Birthdays and Astrology
Of course, early Christians had reasons of their own for not celebrating birthdays. Back then birthdays had strong connections with pagan religion that are less noticeable today. “The custom of commemorating the day of birth is connected . . . in its content, with certain primitive religious principles,” points out the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics. What principles?
Spiritism, for one. “The Greeks believed that everyone had a protective spirit or daemon who attended his birth and watched over him in life. This spirit had a mystic relation with the god on whose birthday the individual was born. The Romans also subscribed to this idea. They called the spirit the genius. This notion was carried down in human belief and is reflected in the guardian angel, the fairy godmother and the patron saint.”—The Lore of Birthdays, Ralph and Adelin Linton.
Another reason for early Christians to avoid birthdays was the connection with astrology. “The keeping of birthday records was important in ancient times principally because a birth date was essential for the casting of a horoscope,” say the Lintons. To early Christians astrology was associated with Eastern religions, Roman Stoicism and the twisted thinking of the Gnostics. Christians wanted no part of that!
Change in Church Attitude
Eventually the nominal church’s opinion of birthdays changed. Why? Because the overall attitude of the church toward the Roman world changed, not surprisingly, when persecution ceased under Emperor Constantine. Nominal Christianity, much corrupted from the apostolic version, became the state religion. Now what happened to her previous hostility to anything pagan?
As the church “emerged from the storm of persecution into the sunshine of imperial favor,” wrote 19th-century clergyman Henry J. Vandyke, “she passed from the lower conception of a church saved out of the world, to the higher conception of a world to be saved through the ministry of the church.”
What was the result of such unscriptural reasoning? “Then it was that, opening her heart to the humanity of religion, she began to draw near to the humanity of Jesus, and to seek with eager interest for the day of His birth, that she might make it holy.” If Jesus’ birthday could be celebrated, what about other birthdays? William Walsh makes the connection, saying: “With the celebration of Christ’s Nativity returned the celebration of the nativities of ordinary mortals.”
Does It Matter Today?
All of this happened many hundreds of years ago. Why should it affect birthday celebrations today? Well, if first-century Christians celebrated neither their own birthdays nor Jesus’ birthday, why should not sincere Christians today follow their example?
‘But isn’t that an extreme position to take, even fanatical?’ some may ask. ‘After all, what harm is there in a birthday party? No spiritism or astrology is involved today.’
Interestingly, much that is taken for granted in birthday celebrations today retains the flavor of ancient religious rites. “The custom of lighted candles on the cakes started with the Greeks,” say the Lintons. “Philochorus [an ancient Greek historian] records that on the sixth day of each month, the birthday of Artemis, [the fertility] goddess of the moon and the hunt, honey cakes round as the moon and lit with tapers were placed on the temple altars of this goddess.”
What do the candles mean? “Birthday candles, in folk belief, are endowed with special magic for granting wishes . . . Lighted tapers and sacrificial fires have had a special mystic significance ever since man first set up altars to his gods. The birthday candles are thus an honor and tribute to the birthday child and bring good fortune,” notes the same source.
How about the traditional greeting “Happy Birthday”? Says The Lore of Birthdays: “Birthday greetings and wishes for happiness are an intrinsic part of this holiday. . . . originally the idea was rooted in magic. The working of spells for good and evil is the chief usage of witchcraft. One is especially susceptible to such spells on his birthday, as one’s personal spirits are about at the time. . . . Birthday greetings have power for good or ill because one is closer to the spirit world on this day.”—Page 20.
Does that mean that Christians cannot have anything to do with any custom that might have originated in false religious rites? No. A great many common practices may have had such origins. But when features of the custom, as carried over into modern-day practice, go contrary to Bible principles, then true Christians must conscientiously refuse to participate.
The Lintons note that birthdays are unlike other holidays, for they are times “when all the presents and good wishes are for oneself. The birthday cake, splendid with colored icing and shining candles is a personal tribute. Other holidays lift the heart, but birthdays warm the ego.”
Is it a good idea for Christians to engage in celebrations that “warm the ego”? Speaking to the proud Pharisees, Jesus warned that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12) Too much ‘ego-warming’ could lead to humiliation at God’s hands. “Let us not become egotistical,” the apostle Paul counseled.—Gal. 5:26.
‘But why pick on a little thing like birthdays?’ some might object. Because Christians believe that the Bible principle “the person faithful in what is least is faithful also in much” applies here.—Luke 16:10.
Besides, while a birthday party might be ‘a little thing,’ a big principle is involved. The fourth-century church began to accept birthdays only after a major change in her thinking. As we noted on page 13, clergyman Vandyke referred to the Scriptural principle that the Christian church is “no part of the world,” as a “lower conception.” But Christians who base their belief on the Bible cannot subscribe to such thinking!
Nowhere do the Scriptures authorize the church to reject Jesus’ statement that “you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.” (John 15:19) Where did the church get the authority to reject Jesus’ words as a “lower conception” and to follow a self-proclaimed “higher conception,” that the church should become part of the world in order to save it?
The Bible letter of James puts it strongly, stating: “Adulteresses, do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever, therefore, wants to be a friend of the world is constituting himself an enemy of God.” (Jas. 4:4) Does that sound as though the church can save the world by becoming part of it and adopting its rituals?
Although childbirth is a joyful occasion, the Bible puts it in perspective with this interesting comment: “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born.” (Eccl. 7:1) How can that be?
At birth all of us have inherited imperfection and sin from our ancestors, Adam and Eve. We are born outside of God’s favor with the prospect of a brief, trouble-filled life and then death.—Job 14:1-4; Rom. 5:12.
Although we are all born under God’s wrath, so to speak, the situation is not hopeless. The Bible writer John put it this way: “He that exercises faith in the Son has everlasting life; he that disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him.”—John 3:36.
So the imperfect life we have at birth is not really life at all from God’s point of view. That is why a good “name” with God is so important! If one’s life has been spent acquiring such a “name,” then, at the end of such a worthwhile life, it can truly be said that ‘the day of death is better than the day of one’s being born.’ Such a person has the sure hope of a resurrection to live again. (Isa. 26:19) Would it not be better to seek and rejoice in a good relationship with God than to celebrate a birth date? After all, we are but a “mist” from his standpoint, “appearing for a little while and then disappearing.”—Jas. 4:14.
“They Don’t Celebrate . . .”
When one of Jehovah’s Witnesses spoke to a family recently, he was informed that other Witnesses lived next door. How did the family know they were Witnesses? A youngster piped up, “They don’t celebrate!”
“It’s true that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays,” agreed the Witness, “but did you know that we do get together socially at other times and we do have fun?”
The youngster’s eyes got big. “You do?” he asked.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not wear sanctimonious black robes and hair shirts. Their refusal to celebrate birthdays stems from a sincere desire to please God. They cannot help but note, as Christians have noted since the time of Origen, that the only two birthday celebrations mentioned in the Bible were those of an Egyptian pharaoh and Herod Antipas, a Roman ruler, neither of whom was a servant of God. It is also significant that both celebrations were associated with an execution.—Gen. 40:20-22; Matt. 14:6-11.
Yet Jehovah’s Witnesses enjoy life. They enjoy sharing with one another in healthful periods of relaxation. They look forward together to the hope of everlasting life that comes under God’s kingdom. (Matt. 6:9, 10; Rev. 21:3, 4) They believe that the time is coming when babies will no longer be born with a painful inheritance of human imperfection and death. At that time, everyone who is born will be able to look forward confidently to a life so long that counting birthdays will be pointless. In the meantime, the Witnesses’ sincere love of life, as well as their love of God, makes them desirous of pleasing him even in ‘little things’ like their attitude toward celebrations that still carry the fundamentals of false religion.