Origins of birthday celebrations

Origins of birthday celebrations

Renee EllisonMar 6, '22

:Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the quantity and pressure of too many children’s birthday parties?  If you want a way out of this relentless demand, here it is!

Did you know these historical facts about the celebration of birthdays?

  • The first birthday celebrations noted in recorded history were around 3,000 BC, and were those of the early pharaohs only (i.e. the kings of Egypt), not of the common man.
  • Often, prisoners were released on this day. (If this is familiar to you, you may have read it in Genesis 40, when Joseph was in confinement in the house of the captain of the guard, the cupbearer was released—and this eventually resulted in Joseph himself being released.)
  • In Egypt and later on in Babylon, only the birthdates of royal sons were celebrated. Some royal women’s birthdays were celebrated, such as that of Cleopatra (her husband—who was also her brother—slaughtered their son and gave him to her for her birthday present).
  • The birthdays of children were never celebrated, unless they were the male children of royalty.
  • The date of a person’s death used to considered be more significant than that of his or her birth. (If this seems vaguely familiar, you might be thinking of how in Scripture, we are commanded to remember the death and resurrection of the Messiah—but nowhere is there even a suggestion to celebrate His birth.)
  • The Greeks took the Egyptian idea of a birthday celebration and added the custom of baking a sweet birthday cake, in honor of their goddess Artemis. It may be that the cakes had lighted candles, representing moonlight, the earthward radiance of this fabricated goddess.
  • With the rise of Christianity, the tradition of celebrating birthdays ceased altogether—until about 1,300 years later. Most of the early followers of Yeshua faced a difficult life that could include suffering and martyrdom for their faith; perhaps this fact influenced them to celebrate the death of a faithful believer, which was “the true deliverance, the passage to eternal paradise.”
  • The early church fathers regarded birthday festivities as a relic of pagan practices, and they wanted to avoid them, in their pursuit of personal holiness and purity.
  • In A.D. 245 a group of Christian historians attempted to pinpoint the precise date of the Savior’s birth. They were opposed in this by the church (i.e., the Catholic Church), which decreed that it would be sacrilegious and sinful to observe the birthday of Christ, “as though He were a King Pharaoh.”

(Source: Charles Panati, Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (New York: William Morrow, 1989), pages 31-33)

For more on this topic, read the post dated 12/12/2021: birthdays seen under the magnifying glass of the Word.

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