Although many who profess Christ celebrate birthdays, did you know that birthdays were simply not celebrated by those in the early church? Interestingly, there is no hint in the Bible or early writings that Jesus, the apostles, or any true Christians ever celebrated birthdays.
This article will begin with an introduction on the origin of birthdays, discuss some ancient and modern Judaic views of birthdays, discuss the Bible and early Gentile views of birthdays, and discuss how birthdays became to be celebrated amongst those that profess Christianity.
So what is the origin of birthdays? Where did the idea of birthdays celebrations come from?
“Originally the idea [of birthday greetings and wishes for happiness] 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 that time. Dreams dreamed on the birthday eve should be remembered, for they are predictions of the future brought by the guardian spirits which hover over one’s bed on the birthday eve. Birthday greetings have power for good or ill because one is closer to the spirit world on this day. Good wishes bring good fortune, but the reverse is also true, so one should avoid enemies on one’s birthday and be surrounded only by well-wishers. ‘Happy birthday’ and ‘Many happy returns of the day’ are the traditional greetings” (The Lore of Birthdays, Linton, p. 20)...
The giving of birthday gifts is a custom associated with the offering of sacrifices to pagan gods on their birthdays. Certainly the custom was linked with the same superstitions that formed the background for birthday greetings. “The exchange of presents… is associated with the importance of ingratiating good and evil fairies… on their or our birthdays” (ibid.).
The traditional birthday cake and candles also have their origin in ancient pagan idol worship. The ancients believed that the fire of candles had magical properties. They offered prayers and made wishes to be carried to the gods on the flames of the candles. Thus we still have the widely practiced birthday custom of making a wish, then blowing out the candles. The Greeks celebrated the birthday of their moon goddess, Artemis, with cakes adorned with lighted candles...
“The Egyptians… discovered to which of the gods each month and day is sacred; and found out from the day of a man’s birth, what he will meet with in the course of his life, and how he will end his days, and what sort of man he will be” (Herodotus, Persian Wars, Book II, ch. 82)
Since it was believed that the positions of the stars at the time of birth influenced a child’s future, astrological horoscopes came into being, purporting to foretell the future, based on the time of birth. “Birthdays are intimately linked with the stars, since without the calendar, no one could tell when to celebrate his birthday. They are also indebted to the stars in another way, for in early days the chief importance of birthday records was to enable the astrologers to chart horoscopes” (The Lore of Birthdays, p. 53). Rawlinson’s translation of Herodotus includes the following footnote: “Horoscopes were of very early use in Egypt… and Cicero speaks of the Egyptians and Chaldees predicting… a man’s destiny at his birth"...
When we examine the principles of God’s law closely, as they relate to birthday celebrations, we can understand why neither Christ, nor His Apostles, nor their true followers, observed their birthdays. As noted earlier, the practice has its origin in idolatry and the worship of the sun, moon and stars...Some may view birthday customs as purely secular, lacking any religious significance. Yet we need to be aware of the broader perspective of their origins, and the religious significance they have had—and still have—for vast multitudes of people. (Reynolds, Rod. Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays? Living Church News, May-June 2002. pp.16-18).
Furthermore, the book The Lore of Birthdays (New York, 1952) by Ralph and Adelin Linton, on pages 8, 18-20 had this to say:
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. . . . This notion was carried down in human belief and is reflected in the guardian angel, the fairy godmother and the patron saint. . . . The custom of lighted candles on the cakes started with the Greeks. . . . Honey cakes round as the moon and lit with tapers were placed on the temple altars of [Artemis]. . . . 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...
Thus it appears that birthdays had their origin in mythology and magic, with horoscopes also probably playing a role.
But what were early Jewish practices?
The first century Jewish historian Josephus noted that Jewish families did not celebrate birthdays:
Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the birth of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess (Josephus. Translated by W. Whiston. Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 26. Extracted from Josephus Complete Works, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids (MI), 14th printing, 1977, p. 632).
Now although there is no specific command against the celebration of birthdays in the Bible, the Jewish custom in those days was apparently based on the negative occurrences in the Bible surrounding birthdays, as well as the astrological implications of the celebration of birthdays (pagan practices, like astrology, were specifically prohibited in the law).
Since nearly all of the first Christians were Jewish, this may partially explain why the celebration of Jesus' birth would not be consistent with that early custom.
In their essay titled "Birthdays, Jewishly," Lisa Farber Miller and Sandra Widener point out that the Encyclopedia Judaica is very blunt on this topic:
"The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual."
Here are some passages in the Old Testament that the Jews probably looked at to come to their conclusion about birthdays:
Now it came to pass on the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. Then he restored the chief butler to his butlership again, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand. But he hanged the chief baker (Genesis 40:20-22).
There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
You are wearied in the multitude of your counsels; Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, And the monthly prognosticators Stand up and save you From what shall come upon you. Behold, they shall be as stubble, The fire shall burn them; They shall not deliver themselves From the power of the flame (Isaiah 47:13-14).
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. And Job spoke, and said:
"May the day perish on which I was born, And the night in which it was said, 'A male child is conceived.' May that day be darkness; May God above not seek it, Nor the light shine upon it. May darkness and the shadow of death claim it; May a cloud settle on it; May the blackness of the day terrify it (Job 3:1-5).
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house; and a messenger came to Job and said, "The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, when the Sabeans raided them and took them away--indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!"...If your sons have sinned against Him, He has cast them away for their transgression (Job 1:13-15; 8:4).
Although, I have heard some say that the "day" referred to in Job 1:13 was a birthday celebration, the passage in Job is not explicit and Job himself indicates he was more concerned with what his sons might have said, than done, in their other celebrations (Job 1:4-5). However, it should be noted that there are no positive statements in the Old Testament related to birthdays.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote:
14 Cursed be the day in which I was born!
Let the day not be blessed in which my mother bore me!
15 Let the man be cursed
Who brought news to my father, saying,
"A male child has been born to you!"
Making him very glad.
16 And let that man be like the cities
Which the LORD overthrew, and did not relent;
Let him hear the cry in the morning
And the shouting at noon,
17 Because he did not kill me from the womb,
That my mother might have been my grave,
And her womb always enlarged with me.
18 Why did I come forth from the womb to see labor and sorrow,
That my days should be consumed with shame? (Jeremiah 20:14-18)
The Hebrew calendar itself makes the celebration of birthdays somewhat difficult when one attempts to superimpose it on our modern (essentially Roman-derived) calendars. And the reason for this is that it is about 11 days shorter than the annual orbit around the sun, and hence it adds a thirteenth month seven times in every nineteen year cycle. Thus, one's "birthday" on a modern calendar will vary 11 or so days from year to year--and the positions of the constellations in the sky would always to some degree be different. Therefore, from an astrological perspective, one's alleged "sign" would often be different. If God wanted birthdays celebrated, He probably would have given the children of Israel the type of calendar which would have made it possible to for the "birthday" to fall on the same solar calendar day each year--instead that basically cannot happen but a relatively few times in a life.
It may also be that one of the reasons for circumcising males at eight days (see Genesis 17:12), as opposed to the day of birth (which is what tends to often happen in modern societies who circumcise), would be to change the emphasis from the date of birth to other events as important.
Of course, it should be noted that since the ages of many people in the Hebrew Bible are recorded, some type of acknowledgement of when people were born apparently did take place.
Acknowledgement of years to some degree had to take place as the Old Testament categorizes various people at various times based upon age (e.g. Leviticus 27:3-7; Numbers 4:2-3). But there is no recorded example of the Hebrews actually celebrating their dates of birth.
If you search the scriptures you will notice that many people are mentioned being born, but that the precise date (either with a lunar or solar calendar reference) is not given. If God wanted birthdays to be celebrated, than perhaps He would have given specific birth dates in the Bible--but He did not.
While many modern rabbis still do not endorse the celebration of birthdays, some do. However, it appears that some believe that there is stronger support in both their traditions and writings to not celebrate them.
Notice the following from a Jewish writer:
In Jewish theology, much importance is attached to the day upon which one dies, one's yahrtzeit, but little is mentioned about one's birthday. Some Torah authorities, such as the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoelish Teitelbaum (1887-1979) are opposed to any sort of celebration of one's birthday, while other authorities, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) and the Rebbe from Piaczezna, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro, permit and encourage such celebration on one's birthday as means of inspiring self-reflection and introspection. Rabbi Matis Blum explains that the rationale of those who oppose birthday celebrations is based on a statement of King Solomon, who said, "A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death [is better] than the day of birth." He also explains this opposition is seemingly supported by the Talmud which determined that it is better than man not have been born than man having been born. A third reason for opposing birthday parities is simply the fact that the Torah only mentioned such a party in conjunction with the Pharaoh celebrating his own birthday. This implies that only such morally degenerated people as the sovereign of Egypt would celebrate a birthday, but not Torah True Jews...
Cursing one's birthday is an expression of one's dissatisfaction in one's situation. The Midrash says that two people cursed the day on which they born. Job cursed the day he was born as a reaction to all the suffering to which he was subjected. Jeremiah also cursed the day of his birth as a means of conveying the message of his bitterness in having to foretell the destruction of the Holy Temple, and worse, his knowing that prophecy was destined to be fulfilled. (Happy Birthday! Reb Chaim HaQoton, April 17, 2007. http://rchaimqoton.blogspot.com/2007/04/happy-birthday.html verified 7/12/07).
Thus, many Jewish leaders have acknowledged that the celebration of birthdays was not something that was historically endorsed (though many Jews do celebrate them in modern times).
Did the Magi Give Presents on the Day of Jesus' Birth?
But some have felt, basically by seeing certain alleged manger scenes, that the Magi/wise men came from the East and gave Jesus presents on the day of His birth.
Well, there are a few issues with this.
First, the wise men definitely were not with Jesus on the day of His birth. The Bible is clear that He had already been born:
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him. (Matthew 2:1-2)
Furthermore, notice that they came to worship Him, not celebrate His birthday. It was customary in those times (and still is today) to provide gifts when meeting royalty. Thus, the wise men meeting Jesus and providing presents should not be construed as a birthday celebration.
There is a variety of speculation about who the wise men were, but one that makes the most sense is that they were among the part of Israel. The Apostle James wrote to the "tribes which are scattered abroad" (James 1:1). The first century Jewish historian Josephus stated that some of the tribes of Israel were "beyond Euphrates" (Josephus. Wars of the Jews, Chapter 2. Extracted from Josephus Complete Works. Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids (MI), 14th printing), which is East of Jerusalem.
Another reason to believe that the wise men were of Israeli origin is that they may have had access to at least part of the Hebrew Bible and likely responded because of verses such as the following:
17... A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17).
And since the wise men may have been of Israelite origin, they like the Jews, may not have had a tradition of celebrating birthdays.
But the focus of this article is early Christianity--which while it certainly includes the fact that Jews, including Christian ones, did not celebrate birthdays in the first and second centuries A.D. What were the practices of the non-Jewish (Gentiles) converts to Christianity?
But before getting to later Gentile practices, first perhaps we should look at the teachings of the New Testament itself.
It is interesting to note that while the New Testament is clear about the specific time of certain holy days such as Passover (Matthew 26:17-20) and Pentecost (Acts 2:1), it never mentions the date, nor even the precise month, of Jesus' birth (see Matthew 1 and Luke 1;2:1-20). Nor does it ever specifically endorse the celebration of birthdays. Not does it ever give the date (with either a solar or lunar calendar reference) for any one being born.
The presiding evangelist of the Living Church of God specifically teaches:
"We don't celebrate our birthdays" (Meredith RC. Building Faith and Courage. Sermon, Charlotte-NC, 6/21/08).
Furthermore, there is no recorded instance of any of the apostles or other early Christians celebrating the birth of Christ (see also the article Did the Early Church Celebrate Christmas?).
There is, however, one birthday celebration mentioned in the New Testament, and it was not a good one. Actually, it was so bad, that the one Jesus had called the greatest "among those born of women" (Matthew 11:11) was killed because of it:
But when Herod's birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. So she, having been prompted by her mother, said, "Give me John the Baptist's head here on a platter." And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her. So he sent and had John beheaded in prison. And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother (Matthew 14:6-11).
(The same account is also described in Mark 6:21-28).
Originally, even as more and more Gentiles began to profess Christ (so much so that they outnumbered those of Jewish heritage that did), the early Gentile leaders also did not endorse the celebration of birthdays. No early church writer endorsed the observance of birthdays by Christians, nor are they ever listed in the early observances of the Christian church.
Therefore, the celebration of birthdays, was clearly not part of:
... the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
No early religious/church writing from the second century that I have seen (and I have read most that are available) seems to endorse (or even suggest) the celebration of birthdays by any who professed Christ.
Although he was not part of the Church of God, the writings of the early third century Catholic theologian Origen of Alexandria show that, even that late, Orthodox Catholics were against the celebration of birthdays. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday (Martindale C. Christmas, 1908).
Here is some of what Origen wrote:
...of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below (Origen, in Levit., Hom. VIII, in Migne P.G., XII, 495) (Thurston H. Natal Day. Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Margaret Johanna Albertina Behling Barrett. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
The writings of the late third century Catholic theologian Arnobius show that, even that late, Catholics objected to the celebration of birthdays as he wrote:
...you worship with couches, altars, temples, and other service, and by celebrating their games and birthdays, those whom it was fitting that you should assail with keenest hatred. (Arnobius. Against the Heathen (Book I), Chapter 64. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1886. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).
Thus birthday celebrations, even of gods and leaders, were condemned as far as the late third century by even Roman Catholic leaders.
It does not seem that the celebration of birthdays became common among those that professed Christ until the fourth century. During that century, infant baptism started to become customary and the celebration of Christmas became standard practices for the majority that professed Christ. Also, the fact that Roman emperors tended to celebrate their birthdays was undoubtedly another factor as it was in the fourth century that Roman emperors began to accept some form of Christianity.
History of celebration of birthdays in the West It is thought that the large-scale celebration of birthdays in Europe began with the cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia but was spread by soldiers throughout the Roman Empire. Before this, such celebrations were not common; and, hence, practices from other contexts such as the Saturnalia were adapted for birthdays. Because many Roman soldiers took to Mithraism, it had a wide distribution and influence throughout the empire until it was supplanted by Christianity (Wikipedia. Birthdays. July 12, 2007 version).
Christmas is also relevant because December 25th was the day of celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra. Perhaps it should also be mentioned that one of the key features of Mithraism was Sunday observance. The reason that this seems to be relevant is that the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to make a profession of Christ, was also the first Emperor to make Sunday laws--which he began to do on March 7, 321. Also, a few years later, the Council of Nicea that Constantine convened in 325 A.D. declared Sunday to be the "Christian day" of worship (for more information, please see the article Europa and the Book of Revelation).
According to the fourth century historian Epiphanius, some who observed Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month, claimed that Emperor Constantine mandated a Sunday observance of it in the Council of Nicea in 325 in order to somehow honor his birthday:
"You changed the Passover to Constantine's birthday" (Epiphanius. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III (Sects 47-80), De Fide). Section VI, Verse 9,4. Translated by Frank Williams. EJ Brill, New York, 1994, pp. 410-411).
The World Book Encyclopedia notes,
Christmas...In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on December 25. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun (Sechrist E.H. Christmas. World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 3. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago, 1966, pp. 408-417).
Hence, it would seem to follow that since those who professed Christ as late as the third century did not celebrate birthdays, that it was not after a Roman Emperor implemented Sunday, that perhaps he and others were amenable to adopting other practices of Mithraism--one of which was birthday celebrations. This is apparently how birthdays became to be celebrated amongst those that professed Christianity. A celebration for the date of Jesus' birth in Rome probably began near this time, but was mandated no later than 354 A.D.
Thus it appears that the "birthday of the sun" festivities were a major factor in the date chosen for followers of Greco-Roman Christianity to celebrate. And once those that professed Christ began to widely celebrate that "birthday", other birthday celebrations became more common.
Back in 1969 Anton Lavey wrote The Satanic Bible.
On page 96 on the 1976 version, it mentions birthdays:
THE highest of all holidays in the Satanic religion is the date of one's own birth. This is in direct contradiction to the holy of holy days of other religions, which deify a particular god who has been created in an anthropomorphic form of their own image, thereby showing that the ego is not really buried.
The Satanist feels: "Why not really be honest and if you are going to create a god in your image, why not create that god as yourself." Every man is a god if he chooses to recognize himself as one. So, the Satanist celebrates his own birthday as the most important holiday of the year. After all, aren't you happier about the fact that you were born than you are about the birth of someone you have never even met? Or for that matter, aside from religious holidays, why pay higher tribute to the birthday of a president or to a date in history than we do to the day we were brought into this greatest of all worlds?
Despite the fact that some of us may not have been wanted, or at least were not particularly planned, we're glad, even if no one else is, that we're here! You should give yourself a pat on the back, buy yourself whatever you want, treat yourself like the king (or god) that you are, and generally celebrate your birthday with as much pomp and ceremony as possible.
After one's own birthday, the two major Satanic holidays are Walpurgisnacht and Halloween (or All Hallows' Eve).
(Lavey A, Gilmore P. The Satanic Bible. Avon, September 1, 1976, p. 96--note it is on page 53 of an online version I found also).
It is interesting that birthdays are considered the most important holiday to these Satan worshipers (the founding of their "church" (Walpurgisnacht) and Halloween are the other ones of importance to them). This comes as no surprise.
Although birthdays were to some degree acknowledged, the celebration of birthdays was not something that original Christians did and should not be done by true Christians today. Nor did Jews anciently celebrate birthdays. Nor does the Bible ever give the precise date with either a lunar or solar calendar of any persons' birth.
Birthdays apparently originated in magic and mythology. They were traditionally also celebrated by followers of Mithra. After a sun-worshipping emperor made a profession of Christ and passed the first Sunday law, he and/or apparently his followers probably did not consider that there were problems with celebratory aspects of Mithraism/Saturnalia as long as Christ and believers, and not Mithra, were the focus of celebrations.
But should we be following the example of the Romans who mixed practices of Mithraism into their religion or of those who first accepted Christ? Recall that Christians are advised to:
...contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Jesus' birth was not celebrated by early Christians. Actually, practices now associated with it were condemned as idolatry by the end of the second century. More can be found in the article What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Christmas and the Holy Days? More on what happened to the early Christian church can be found in the article The History of Early Christianity.
Thiel B, Ph.D. Did Early Christians Celebrate Birthdays? www.cogwriter.com 2006/2007/2008/2010 1110
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Other articles on Holy Days and Holidays include:
Is Revelation 1:10
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The Dramatic Story of Chinese Sabbathkeepers This reformatted Good News article from 1955 discusses Sabbath-keeping in China in the 1800s.
Is God Unreasonable? Some have suggested that if God requires Sabbath-keeping He is unreasonable. Is that true?
Is There "An Annual Worship Calendar" In the Bible? This paper provides a biblical and historical critique of several articles, including one by WCG which states that this should be a local decision. What do the Holy Days mean? Also you can click here for the calendar of Holy Days.
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