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Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?
By Rod Reynolds
Job, we are told, "was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1). Job had seven sons, and "each one on his day" made a feast (Job 1:4, Darby's Version). Many Bible commentators (e.g., Easton's Bible Dictionary; the Companion Bible; Irwin's Bible Commentary; Smith's Bible Dictionary; Jameson, Fausset, Brown Commentary) regard "his day" (yowm) as most likely a reference to his birthday, as also in Job 3:1.
Each time these celebrations had run their course, Job felt obliged to offer burnt offerings for his sons, with the thought that, "'It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.' Thus Job did regularly" (Job 1:6). Why would Job have been concerned that in celebrating their birthdays -- as is likely -- his sons may have been sinning?
The celebration of birthdays is one of the world's most popular and widespread customs. As with many of our customs, it has been passed on by tradition from one generation to the next. Yet, few have stopped to consider the origin of the custom and what hidden meanings the practices associated with celebrating birthdays might have.
As Christians, however, it's important to know how God views our actions and the customs we associate ourselves with. Does it please -- or displease -- God for us to celebrate birthdays? Or is it a matter of indifference to Him? Have you ever searched to find the answer?
The first question in the minds of some might be, "What does celebrating birthdays have to do with religion?" That's a fair question -- one that needs answering. Many people observe customs religious in nature without ever realizing they have anything to do with religion. For example, some years ago I was explaining to my son's teacher what activities associated with religious holidays he could not participate in. She said, "Christmas I can understand, Easter I can understand, but what does Valentine's Day have to do with religion?" She had no idea that Saint Valentine's Day has its roots in ancient pagan religion. For many, especially in the United States, the same is true of birthdays.
Yet the custom of celebrating birthdays is not only ancient, but firmly rooted in religion. Notice, for example, the following comment from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: "The custom of commemorating the day of birth is connected, in its form, with the reckoning of time, and, in its content, with certain religious principles" ("Birth-days," p. 663, emphasis added).
The Western world observes the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, who reformed the previous calendar in the 16th century. The forerunner of the Gregorian calendar was the Julian, which was adapted from ancient Roman and Egyptian calendars, and from which we get the names of our months. Several of the months in our calendar are named after pagan gods. For example, January after Janus, February after an ancient pagan festival, March after Mars. This illustrates the close connection religion has had historically with the keeping of time.
The Hindus also have their own calendar, based on the signs of the zodiac. Most Muslim countries use the Islamic calendar. Jews use the Hebrew calendar. Perhaps the first question you should ask, if you were to observe your birthday, is by which calendar? Should you use a pagan Roman calendar, or the calendar God, who created time, inspired for His own people to use?
Historians say that originally birthday celebrations were observed only for gods and rulers. Birthdays of gods were important because it was believed that the god on whose birthday a person was born had a special influence over him. The ancient pagans closely linked the influence of fate and the gods to the motions of the stars. The birthdays of rulers were important because it was believed that not only his personal fate but the fate of nations hinged on the time of the ruler's birth. Such beliefs are the stock in trade of astrology, of which more will be said shortly.
Early in history the birthdays of important gods and rulers (often one and the same) came to be important festivals. "The festivals of gods are frequently their birthdays" (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, p. 666). Examples are the Hindu gods Rama, Krishna and Ganesa, and most of the gods and goddesses of the ancient world. The birthday of the ancient sun-god, worshipped in all the world under various names, was, as it is today, a major festival. "The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers. No doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the twenty-fifth of December was the great Oriental goddess whom the Semites called the Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess; in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte" (The Golden Bough, part IV, "Adonis, Attis, Osiris," vol. I, p. 303).
Have you ever wondered about the origin of common customs associated with birthday celebrations? Did you realize customs such as birthday greetings, giving of gifts, birthday cakes and candles were conceived in superstition and idolatry? "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, Ralph and Adelin Linton, p. 20). The association of birthday greetings with pagan superstition is also confirmed by the following authority: "...birthdays are the times when good and evil spirits have the opportunity to attack the celebrants who at these times are in peril." What is done to counter these malevolent spirits? "The presence of friends and the expression of good wishes help to protect the celebrant against the unknown pervasive peril" (Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, p. 144).
The giving of birthday gifts is a custom which likely began with the offering of sacrifices to pagan gods on their birthdays. Certainly the custom was linked with the same superstitions which 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" (Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, p. 144).
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 Lore of Birthdays, p. 18). The "mother-goddess" was (and is today) worshipped under many different names. In the confused pantheism of paganism, Artemis is only one name identified with the "queen of heaven." That Artemis, or Diana, was usually conceived of as a virgin, but at other times as a mother goddess, only attests to the confusion characteristic of pagan idolatry (cf. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, "Artemis," pp. 71-73; The Golden Bough, MacMillan abridged edition, p. 163). She was one of several Greek goddesses identified in various ways with Ishtar, or Ashtaroth (Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, "Astarte," vol. 2, p. 376). Ishtar (also known as Astarte) was the name often used for the "mother-goddess" in the Middle East. The Phoenicians worshipped her as Ashtaroth. Israelites and Jews also often worshipped her as Ashtaroth (Judges 2:13; 10:6; II Kings 23:13). In Egypt even after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, Jews were still observing the festival of this pagan "queen of heaven" by baking cakes (Jeremiah 7:18; 44:19). Birthday celebrations are only one way in which such pagan customs continue to this day.
The observing of birthdays is closely linked with astrology. Astrology is based on the idea that human destiny is controlled by the locations and movements of the sun, moon and stars. It is, in effect, the worship of those bodies, substituting them for the Creator God, who created both man and the heavens, and who is the true arbiter of man's destiny. Such beliefs were common in ancient Egypt -- a very symbol of man's culture and civilization cut off from God. "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, by their observations of the stars" (book II, ch. 82, fn.). An illustration from more recent times is the following comment on the use of horoscopes in Mexico: "Horoscopes were prepared from these [astrological] signs for the day and hour of birth. Every Mexican bore through life, as a species of personal name, the sign of his birthday" (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. II, "Birth-days," p. 664).
Astrology was a powerful influence during the Middle Ages in nominally Christian Europe, its claims being almost universally accepted. (The Vatican possesses the world's largest astrological library). Politics as well as religion was heavily influenced by astrology. Few kings would venture to make war without first consulting their court astrologers. And much of what passed for both medicine and science during the period was based on astrology.
Astrology continues to have a wide following the world over, even if many people do not take it seriously. Among the Hindus, even the poorest families manage to scrape up ten rupees or more to pay an astrologer to draw up a horoscope for their offspring. It is very difficult for a Hindu to marry if he or she cannot produce a detailed horoscope. The stars must agree before any betrothal can take place. Few Hindus make major decisions without first consulting their horoscopes. Farmers in India rely on astrologers to tell them when and where to plant and when to harvest. "Virtually all top ministers of the Indian government have personal staff astrologers to advise them on political matters" (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 6, 1983, p. 2A). India is only one example of how astrology influences daily life even in the modern world. Astrological columns are among the most popular features of virtually every major daily newspaper. Of course the advice found in such columns, read by millions, varies according to the person's birthday.
Today, as for thousands of years, nations and cultures the world over have marked beliefs associating the destiny of a person with the time of his birth. For example, Sir James G. Frazer wrote that in Madagascar it was believed that "every man's fortune is determined by the day or hour of his birth "(The Golden Bough, part I, vol. 1, p. 173). Others have chronicled similar beliefs in all parts of the world. From the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics comes the following remark concerning such superstitions in various societies: "As the circumstances attending the moment of birth are auspicious or inauspicious, so are those attending the day. Any object or circumstance distinguishing it may affect the destiny of the child" (vol. II, "Birth-days," p. 663). Until very recent times in several tribal societies children born on days deemed "unlucky" were put to death.
Is celebrating birthdays a truly Christian custom? Does God approve? Did Jesus or the apostles, or the Church founded by them, celebrate birthdays?
When the New Testament was written, the celebrating of birthdays was a common practice, especially in Gentile nations. Josephus mentions the birthday celebrations of several rulers, often accompanied by threats or actual violence. For example, after he destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D., the Roman general Titus journeyed to Caesarea Philippi and there solemnized the birthday of his brother by slaughtering more than 2500 Jewish captives. A short time later, having journeyed to Berytus in Phoenicia, he celebrated his father's birthday with the slaughter of "a great multitude" of remaining captives (Wars of the Jews, 4.3.1). Similar examples of slaughter and mayhem on the birthdays of important personages are common in history.
Observant Jews, however, did not celebrate birthdays (Against Apion, 2.26), and generally considered the day of one's death to be of more significance than the day of one's birth (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:1). We are given no command or example that Christians were to celebrate either Christ's birthday or our own. The precise time of Jesus' birthday is left deliberately vague. Even two or more centuries after the time of Christ Christians commonly "...considered birthday festivities to be survivals of heretical practice. The Greek and Roman birthday feasts were looked upon as pagan orgies" (The Lore of Birthdays, p. 42). Among early Christians birthday celebrations were considered "immoral as well as frivolous."
When we examine closely the principles of God's law as they relate to birthday celebrations we can understand why neither Christ, nor His apostles, nor their true followers, observed this custom. As noted earlier the practice has its origin in idolatry and the worship of the sun, moon and stars. God does not intend that we look to the incidental time of our birth as having any bearing on our welfare and happiness. He wants us to understand that our happiness really rests in serving Him and obeying His Divine Law. God says to His people, "...Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain" (Jeremiah 10: 2-3). The Hebrew word translated "vain" in the verse quoted can mean empty or purposeless. God does not want us basing our lives on empty and meaningless customs. "This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as...Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind" (Ephesians 4:17). We are further instructed: "...have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Ephesians 5:11). Israel was destroyed as a nation because: "...they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the Eternal had charged them, that they should not do like them" (II Kings 17:15).
When we learn the truth God expects us to forsake the idolatrous customs founded on the worship of the creation instead of the Creator. This is a lesson the predominantly Gentile Galatian churches had to learn during the New Testament era. After they had become Christians through the preaching of the Apostle Paul, false teachers came in Paul's absence. They taught a subtle and confusing blend of corrupted Christian, Jewish and pagan doctrines.
One of the results was that the newly converted Gentiles were turned back to pagan customs associated with the motions of the heavenly bodies. Paul had to correct them, saying, "But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods [false gods]. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years" (Galatians 4:8-10). The Greek word translated "elements" in verse nine is stoicheion. One of the meanings attached to this word is "heavenly bodies," i.e., the sun, moon, stars, planets (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Robertson).
Pagan worshipers attached great significance to the apparent movements of the heavens. Their temples and high places were often both places of worship and astronomical observatories, and were oriented toward certain fixed points, such as sunrise at the summer solstice. And the false worship associated with the heavenly bodies to which the Gentile Galatians had "turned again" was tied directly to particular "days and months and seasons and years." Note that Paul is not here speaking of God's Holy Days which He commanded His people to observe "throughout their generations as a perpetual [never ending] covenant" (Exodus 31:34), as a "sign" between Him and His people. The "days," etc., Paul speaks of are days which the Gentiles were observing in their idol worship before they knew of the true God (Galatians 4:8), and which they were turning again to.
The summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes were days and seasons especially important in pagan worship. Christmas, Easter, the Nativity of St. John are all remnants of pagan worship tied to such days. The months were associated in pagan worship with the signs of the zodiac and the phases of the moon, which was widely worshipped as a goddess. Certain years also had particular significance in pagan religion. For example, the four year Olympic cycle observed by the Greeks was dedicated to Zeus, the "greatest" of the Greek gods. Birthday celebrations originated in the same idolatrous milieu as these.
Some no doubt will argue that in celebrating birthdays they have no intent of honoring pagan gods nor any astrological concepts in mind. Perhaps Job's sons didn't either. Yet the apparent adoption by his sons of a vain custom clearly rooted in idolatry led Job to be concerned that they may "have sinned and cursed God in their hearts" (Job 1:5). It's very clear that God does not want us adopting such customs, as we've seen. It's clear, too, that not only the Jews of Jesus' day but the Church itself rejected the birthday custom.
Some may view the birthday custom as purely secular, lacking
any religious significance. Yet, we need to be aware of the
broader perspective of its origins and the religious significance
it has had and still has for vast multitudes of people.
Remember, too, that Pharaoh observed birthdays (Genesis 40:20), as
did King Herod (Matthew 14:6)—and their celebrations not only
dishonored God, but also featured the executions of other human
beings! As Christians, we are admonished to "flee from idolatry"
(1 Corinthians 10:14). Our conduct with respect to this question
does have a bearing on our relationship with God and on our
obedience to his prohibitions against the adoption of idolatrous
We ought to be circumspect in how we deal with birthday customs
within our families and among our associates. Families can certainly
“note” or acknowledge a child’s growth and development on a birth date,
or honor an elderly person in a Christian manner, avoiding the spirit
of the carnal celebrations described in this article. And we should
take care not to “harangue” others, especially those without God’s
Spirit, about this matter. But we should not be eager to receive such
recognition for ourselves. As Christians, we should not be entangled in
the birthday custom.
Copyright © 2001 by Rod Reynolds. Permission granted to copy without alteration for personal use, provided this notice is included. Commercial use of this material without the express written permission of the author is prohibited
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