April is one of my favorite months – mostly because it’s the month I was born, and I always look forward to celebrating with my friends and family. So as my birthday approaches, I wonder: is there is any religious significance or history to our birthday celebrations?
I was surprised to discover that the Bible mentions birthdays only twice – Genesis 40:20-22 and Matthew 14:6-10. Both of these birthday celebrations were not entirely joyful since both were related to death in some way – the first mentions the death of the chief baker on Pharoah’s birthday, and the second concerns the beheading of John the Baptist during Herod’s birthday celebration. Doesn’t shine a very good light on birthdays, huh?
In ancient Greece and Rome, the birthdays of the gods were celebrated, but not those of men. That is, until some men became powerful political figures and began to see their own birthdays as events that were just as important as the birthdays of the gods they worshiped. But as the Roman Empire declined, so did birthday celebrations.
Humanity entered the Dark Ages, and birth records were no longer kept as precisely as before. As a result, birthday celebrations were few and far between. In fact, the Catholic Church frowned upon birthday parties, tending to agree with Origen who said that Christians should not only refrain from celebrating their birthdays, but should look on them with disgust.
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church began keeping better birth records. Around the same time, a custom arose in which children were named after a patron saint on the day of their baptism. Thus, ordinary people began celebrating their saint’s day, while the nobility began celebrating the anniversary of their own births.
Although birthday celebrations have become the norm in our culture, there are still Christian groups (as well as other religious groups) which refrain from celebrating birthdays, believing them to be associated with superstition, paganism, and the like.
Luckily, we Methodists have no qualms about birthdays and can throw together some pretty mean potlucks!