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Should A Christian Celebrate Birthdays

by Dr. Ray Hermann

   Some Christian religious organizations frown upon birthday celebrations. Often cited as a reason for this attitude is the thought that only two instances of birthdays are mentioned in the Bible; both represented pagan situations and were related to the killing of people.
    The first mention of a birthday is in Genesis when Joseph was in Egypt and he interpreted the meaning of a dream. The dream included, among other things, the hanging of the chief baker on Pharaoh's birthday (see Gen 40:20-22). In the New Testament, the other mention concerns the beheading of John the Baptist when Herod was celebrating his own birthday. During the party, Herod promised Herodias' daughter any gift she wanted, because he was so pleased by her dancing. At her mother's urging, she asked for John's head and she received it on a platter (see Matt. 14:6-10).
    Some religions make a big thing of these events to demonstrate to their members the importance of not celebrating birthdays. Another scripture they use, to persuade belief in their attitude, is Ecclesiastes 7:1,8: ...the day of death [is better] than the day of birth...[and] the end of a thing is better than its beginning...(RSV). To be sure, this sentiment was felt by most of the Old Testament Hebrews. And to the early Christians, the birthday revelry of the Romans was looked upon as pagan orgies.

Birthdays of Gods

    Early Greeks and Romans celebrated the birthdays of the gods, but not those of men. However, as time went on, and some men became powerful political figures, it is understandable that prominent men felt that their own birthdays were as important as those of the gods. The Romans kept accurate birth records, therefore they not only knew when people were born, but knew their ages, too. But, as the Roman Empire declined, so did birthday celebrations.
    During the Dark Ages, few people knew how old they were, much less the exact date of their birth. And those that did know when they were born were not allowed, by the early Catholic Church, to celebrate it. The Catholic Church was the final authority in secular matters as well as those of a Holy concern. Origen, the distinguished early Christian writer and teacher (c.185-254), stated that it would be a sin to consider celebrating the birth, even of Christ.

Birthdays Have No Christian Background

    If the birthday doesn't have a Christian background, why then is it celebrated by so many Christian people?   By the twelfth century, the Catholic Church began keeping birth records and , sometimes children were given the name of a patron Saint at baptism. And by the fourteenth century, this idea was considered an official ritual of the Church. The Saint whose name the child had, would be his guardian throughout life and would be thought to give protection from evil. (Consider the many references to "guardian angle" and "fairy godmother" in literature for children.) This ceremonial custom was called the "name day" and celebration was considered proper, because it was a day sacred to the Saint - the day of his death.
    In the Dark and Middle Ages, superstition suggested that evil spirits wanted the souls of newborn infants and were, therefore, a constant danger. Only baptism was an effective deterrent. For this reason, early baptism was important and baptism on the day of birth was considered the best defense. As the baptism of infants on their day of birth became common, it is easy to understand how celebrating a person's birthday became so popular.

Is It Proper?

    Considering this information, is it proper for a Christian to celebrate birthdays? There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that the celebration of birthdays is wrong. True, the two birthdays of the Bible, mentioned above, concerned only pagan practices, but Christians use other pagan habits which have been accepted as genuine Christian practices. Take baptism, for example. Although there is some early biblical mention concerning immersion of Gentile proselytes, most historical references to baptism practices are not biblical in character.
    Water played an important part in most primitive religions, because of its importance to life; birth and purification ceremonies involving water were not uncommon. Cultures that incorporated religious water rites included those of Greece, India, and Egypt. It is also known that the Teutons and Celts practiced such rituals, as well as did the Maya civilization of the Yucatan, before any Christian influences reached them .
    The history behind pagan baptism does not make Christian baptism any less proper. And, although birthday celebration was not a practice observed during Christ's ministry on earth, it is not fitting to attack the practice just because of its pagan background. Observing a birth on its annual occurrence can be proper for Christians and does, indeed, have a scriptural basis. It is in the book of Job that we find this evidence.

Job's Sons Celebrated Birthdays

    Job was a blameless and upright man (see Job 1:1) and, therefore, raised his children properly. and the evidence indicates that his sons - and most probably Job, as well - celebrated birthdays.

And his sons went and rested in their houses, everyone his day; and sent and called for their three sisters to eat and drink with them. (Job 1:4, KJV)

    Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible indicates that the word interpreted as "day" (yowm) in this scripture can be used figuratively as a space of time and can be rendered, with other Hebrew words (such as "his") to mean birthday. The Revised Standard Version is a better translation of this verse:

His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.

    But, The Living Bible probably gets to the meaning, of what is meant, best of all:

Every year when each of Job's sons had a birthday, he invited his brothers and sisters to his house for a celebration. On these occasions they would eat and drink with great merriment.

    Needless to say, today, birthdays are important in our culture and a yearly celebration is quite proper for friends and family. There is no need to be filled with guilt brought upon by well-meaning, but wrongly informed members of religious organizations who add extra meaning to the scriptures.

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1991, Ray Hermann
(Any use of this article must contain the "by-line" and proper copyright information; a link to this site would be appreciated.)

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