By Akin Ojumu

Today, as I face undue pressure coming from all directions, albeit from well-meaning folks who want to know what I want to do on my birthday, the question suddenly popped into my mind. Why do we celebrate birthdays and from where did the celebration of the day of one’s birth originate?

As a Christian, the Bible is my first, and the primary, source of answer for such questions about human customs. Straight unto the pages of the Holy Scriptures, I always turn whenever I seek the unvarnished truth about the common practices in our daily lives. And the Word of God never disappoints. You’d always find the truth in the Book of life.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of celebrating birthdays is rooted in heathen traditions characterized by pagan debauchery and idolatrous wantonness. Two instances of birthday celebrations are specifically mentioned in the Bible. In each of them someone lost their head. And I mean, literarily. The birthday celebrations recorded in the Bible were all characterized by orgy, decadence, and death. 

The first recorded birthday celebration was the one thrown by Pharaoh. Ancient Egyptians considered the day of birth of a Pharaoh as the day he was born as a god. On this particular day, as recorded in Genesis 40:20-22, after much eating and drinking, the occasion culminated in the execution by hanging of Pharaoh’s chief baker. The Hebrew word correctly translates to mean impaled. On Pharaoh’s birthday – the day he was celebrated to have been born a god – one of his most trusted servants was gouged to death like an ordinary animal.

The other birthday celebration, recorded in Matthew 14, was that of Herod the Tetrarch. Again, it was an occasion marked with senseless carousing and shameless cavorting. As the story goes, at the climax of the event, when most of the people present had lost control of their minds, Herod’s niece, Salome – the daughter of Herodias – danced sensuously and voluptuously before the heavily intoxicated guests teasing them along into erotic delirium. The delirious Herod, captivated with the performance, vowed to give the enchantress anything she asked for. Salome, following her mother’s instructions, demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod had imprisoned John because he spoke out against him for stealing his brother Philip’s wife. Afraid of losing face before his party guests, Herod ordered John beheaded. 

John MacArthur provided additional historical context for the Herod’s birthday celebrations:

“…There was a phrase, “Herodis dies” in Latin, which means “Herod’s birthday.” It became a proverb for excessive, orgiastic festivals. In those days, the Romans held stag birthday parties. All the birthday parties were stag parties; only men came – and they were gluttonous, and they were drunken brawls, and they were climaxed by women who came in and danced immoral, lewd, seductive dances; and then the thing became an orgy; and that was Herod’s birthday.”

That was typical of all birthday celebrations. Herod’s birthdays became a synonym for wantonness. It was an occasion for sinful gratification for the heathen. In the Scriptures, you’d find that it was only the pagans that were recorded to have celebrated birthdays, and there is no instance in which a Jew engaged in it. To the Jews, the celebration of birthdays is an act of great shame.

The early Christians never celebrated birthdays either. They viewed such carnal orgies with revulsion. They abstained from practicing the gratification of the flesh and they would not have anything to do with it. It wasn’t until the 4th Century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine who claimed to have embraced Christianity brought along with him into the Church all of the pagan practices and religious rites of the world. 

The introduction of birthdays to Christianity came by the way of Christmas Day, i.e., the celebration of Jesus’ birthday on December 25th which happened to coincide with the Saturnalia, the most popular holiday in ancient Rome, and was linked with the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season. i.e., the rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice.

With birthday celebrations came birthday cakes, candle lighting, candle blowing, and making of wishes. Many of these practices that we now do today during birthday celebrations can be traced directly to pagan beliefs and customs of Egyptians and Greeks of ancient times. Take for instance the birthday cakes, the Greeks consider them tributes to Artemis the moon goddess. And the lighting of candles to warding off of evil spirits.

According to Lore of Birthday:

“Pagans, such as the ancient Greeks, believed that each person had a spirit that was present on the day of his or her birth. This spirit kept watch and had a mystic relation with the god on whose birthday that particular individual was born. The Greeks adopted the Egyptian tradition of celebrating the “birth” of a god. They, like many other pagan cultures, thought that days of major change, such as these “birth” days, welcomed evil spirits. They lit candles in response to these spirits almost as if they represented a light in the darkness.”

We do many things today that no one ever stops for a moment to ask the question, “What’s the origin of this practice? When did it start? And why do we do it?” Call me a congenital rebel or pathological renegade, no matter how hard I try, I simply can’t keep myself from asking the question, “Why?”

To the extent that I am good at anything, conforming with the norm is definitely not one of them. As much as I try to be a good sport, my comfort zone actually lies well outside the perimeters of what most people would consider established traditions.

Being a contrarian has its cost. From time to time, it can feel somewhat lonely. But guess what?  I'm comfortable in my own skin and wouldn’t trade places with anyone. It's in the solitary place that I’m most thoughtful, and having this questioning mindset makes me more reflective. The attitude of solitude elevates me to an altitude where my creative aptitude gushes out in multitudes, and then I’m imbued with considerable latitude to sharpen my intellectual exactitude. That is a long and winded way of saying that I learn when I ask because asking makes me think, and thinking is the only way I grow. Much more importantly to me, though, is the fact that a nonconformist is who I am, and like the popular McDonald’s commercials jingo, “Ba da ba ba ba, I’m loving it.” That’s the way I like it.

Don't get me wrong. It is not my intention to be a killjoy or a party-pooper; Debbie Downer is not my middle name. I derive no pleasure raising doubts in your mind about something that makes you happy. If you think it’s cool to be born like a god, hey, suit yourself. My goal here is to enlighten you. What I hope to achieve is to shed the light on that which had, hitherto, been hidden from you. Now that you have the knowledge, what you do with it is your cup of tea. Having been so illuminated, though, I hope you’d be able to make an informed decision next time as to whether you are going to close your eyes, blow a candle, and make a wish.


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