The Surprising Origin of
Where did the custom of celebrating birthdays come from? Did holy men of God in the Bible celebrate birthdays? Is it wrong to celebrate the day of one’s birth? What does the Bible say about birthdays? Here is information you ought to know!
William F. Dankenbring
Almost everybody, today, celebrates birthdays. Around the world, friends and relatives hold birthday parties, give gifts to the one being honored, and wish “Happy birthday!” to the one whose birthday is being celebrated.
Where did this universal custom originate?
Though you look in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, you will find no mention anywhere of any of the saints of God observing their birthdays. In fact, strange as it may seem to many, even the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ is NOWHERE REVEALED in Scripture!
We read in the Encyclopedia Judaica, “The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual” (vol.4, p.1054). It points out that the only reference to a birthday in the Bible is that of Pharaoh of Egypt.
The universal custom of observing Christmas as the birth of Christ, on December 25th, is acknowledged by all the historical authorities as having no basis in actual fact. Jesus Christ was born nowhere near December 25th, in the dead of winter. See our article, “When Was Jesus Born?”
If the very day of Jesus’ birth is deliberately left out of the Bible, doesn’t that fact tell us something? If birthdays should be celebrated, why did God leave the date of His own Son’s birth out of Holy Scripture?
The plain truth is that birth day celebrations are only mentioned twice in the Scriptures -- once in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament – and both times in reference to customs being observed by unconverted, pagan people -- an Egyptian Pharaoh, and wicked king Herod! Notice what happened on these two instances of “birth day celebrations” recorded in the Word of God.
In the book of Genesis we read: “And it came to pass the third day, which was PHARAOH'S BIRTHDAY, that he made a feast [BIRTHDAY PARTY] unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand: but he hanged the chief baker: as Joseph had interpreted to them” (Genesis 40:20-22).
Notice! This was a birthday party, nothing less! It was being observed by a pagan Egyptian Pharaoh -- not a man of God. This is the only example of a clear cut birthday celebration in all the Old Testament -- and it was being observed by a PAGAN KING!
The Origin of Birthdays
This fact, however, should not be overly surprising. Writes Linda Rannells Lewis in Birthdays, “Birthdays have been celebrated for thousands of years. In early civilizations, where the development of a calendar made an organized reckoning of birth dates possible, the horoscopes of ruling monarchs, their successors and rivals had to be cast with care and birthday omens meticulously examined, for the prospects of the mighty would affect the prospects of the entire society. By the time of Ptolemy V this practice was well established: ‘Ptolemy, the ever living, the beloved of Ptah, the son of the two Brother-Gods, was born on the fifth day of the month DIOS, and this day was, in consequence, the beginning of great prosperity and happiness of all living men and women’” (p. 12).
Ptolemy V was an ancient Egyptian king. It was common in his day for kings and rulers to have their horoscopes made by astrologers and their birthdays were considered very important omens of the future.
The false science of astrology, of course, makes a great deal out of the positions of the sun, moon and stars at the moment or day of one’s birth. Astrology teaches that the position of the sun, moon and stars at the moment of one’s birth determines their future destiny, their character, their personality, talents, health, and so forth. They cast horoscopes, or birth charts, to understand the supposed significance of a person’s birthday.
Astrology, as the Word of God plainly shows, is a pagan, false religious deception -- a fraud and a mythological pseudo-science.
God Almighty says to the
Writes Lewis, in Birthdays, “Birthday celebrations, even at this early stage, were not strictly reserved for the great rulers. Society adapts for its communal use those practices of the elite which it admires and can afford. In the fifth century before Christ, the Greek historian Herodotus, describing the festivals of the Persians, wrote: 'IT IS THEIR CUS-TOM TO HONOR THEIR BIRTHDAY ABOVE ALL OTHER DAYS: and on this day they furnish their table in a more plentiful manner than at other times. The rich then produce an ox, a horse, a camel, and an ass, roasted whole in an oven; but the poor produce smaller cattle.”
Lewis continues, “In Egypt households of the same period birthdays were celebrated similarly. A part of the family budget was set aside to buy birthday garlands and animals for sacrifice, just as we might plan to spend a certain sum for balloons, party hats, and an ice cream cake” (pages 12-13).
This author goes on, “Among prosperous Greek families a birth feast, a coming-of-age feast, and feasts after death held on the anniversary of the day of birth were observed, but otherwise there were no annual birthday ceremonials. The birthdays of the immortals were ritually acknowledged once a month, however, the third day of each month being sacred to Athena, Ares, and Saturn, for instance” (ibid.).
The emperors of
The Command of God
What does Almighty God say to His people about celebrating such days in honor of one’s own self, and one’s own individual ego?
The whole message of God is to teach us to humble ourselves, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves – to get rid of ego and self-centeredness. Birthdays have the opposite effect. They concentrate the attention on the birthday person, glorifying him – not God – and exalting him – not God – and having people bring him presents. Thus paying “homage” to the birthday child. This is the height of conceit and fosters a spirit of get, selfishness, and self-worship. Self, self, self! The whole extravaganza creates pride and lofty conceit in selfishness in a child. The typical birthday party is therefore one of the deceptions of the devil, made to look attractive and nice on the outside, but full of wickedness on the inside.
We have already seen the proof that these celebrations were distinctly pagan in origin. But does it make any difference whether we observe birthdays or not?
If our purpose is to build godly and holy offspring and loving, giving, godly children, then we should want to do NOTHING that would hinder this godly purpose – put no temptations in their pathway – do nothing to encourage them to think too highly of themselves in pride and arrogance. Rather, we should teach them to give, to serve, to be humble, to revere God and His Word, and to love other children and seek to help, serve, and honor them. Giving is much better than “getting.” Cain was named “Get,” for his name meant “gotten,” as Eve said, “I have gotten a man-child from the Lord” (Gen.4:1).
Birthday celebrations were definitely of pagan origin. Should God’s people emulate the pagans and pagan societies around them?
God inspired the prophet Jeremiah to write,I in plain terms, “Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, LEARN NOT THE WAY OF THE HEATHEN, and be not dismayed at the signs of the heaven (astrology!); for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the CUSTOMS OF THE PEOPLE ARE VAIN” (Jeremiah 10:1-3).
Clearly, Almighty God commands His people not to follow in the ways, customs, and practices of the heathen, pagan nations around them! Obviously, therefore, the Word of God does NOT sanction or approve of public birthday celebrations or birthday parties!
God is even more
plain in His Word. Celebrating birthdays with lavish birthday parties
was a pagan Egyptian custom. God commands His people, “After the
DOING OF THE LAND OF EGYPT, wherein ye dwelt, SHALL
YE NOT DO: and after the doings of the
God goes on, in this same chapter, after listing more of the evil practices of the heathen, “DEFILE YE NOT YOURSELVES IN ANY OF THESE THINGS: for in all these the nations are defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself VOMITETH out her inhabitants.”
“Ye shall therefore keep MY statutes and MY judgments” -- which did NOT include birthday celebrations! – “and shall NOT COMMIT ANY OF THESE ABOMINATIONS; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these ABOMINATIONS have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you” (Leviticus -28).
Does this sound strong? Almighty God does not sanction, approve or endorse ANY of the pagan customs of the nations of the world! They are an ABOMINATION to Him! Birthday parties may seem so innocent and good on the surface, for the children, but all is not as it seems on the surface. Parents, beware! If you truly love your children then raise them according to GOD’s customs and teachings! This will protect them from the temptations of the devil, vanity, pride, arrogance, and self-centeredness!
God feels very strongly about these kinds of things which foster selfishness, pride, ego, and arrogance. He commands His people, “Therefore shall ye keep MINE ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these ABOMINABLE CUSTOMS, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus -30). Although the customs being discussed in this chapter of Leviticus dealt primarily with religious worship and pagan religious customs, by extension the same principle would apply to pagan derived birthday customs.
Most of the customs God
mentioned in Leviticus 18 were abominable sexual practices common among the heathen, and common in the world around us, today. But verse
3 of this chapter says we are not to do “after the doings of the
This clearly shows that the celebrations of BIRTHDAYS, so common in
Let us fear God and KEEP His commandments!
What About New Testament Times?
Even as there is only one example of birthday celebrations in the Old Testament, so the New Testament also gives us only one such example -- that of the wicked, apostate king Herod, one of the worst butchers who ever lived.
Herod was notorious for his wickedness. He was a complete pagan at heart. Notice! He celebrated his own birthday, and see what happened!
“But when Herod's BIRTHDAY WAS KEPT, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.” The entertainment at his birthday party included a very erotic, sensual dance, very likely a strip tease of some sort. Herod was fascinated by the gyrations and movements of the lithe young female dancer, his wife’s daughter.
“Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John the Baptist's head in a charger.”
“And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus” (Matthew 14:6-12). Here again, at a pagan birthday party, somebody was killed -- this time it was one of God’s greatest servants, John the Baptizer!
And this occurred all because of a birthday party!
It should be plain that true servants of God do not observe their birthdays and make a “big deal” out of them, or hold parties to celebrate them. The pagans do – but not true Christians or followers of the Messiah, who seek His blessing on their activities!
Should Christians celebrate birthdays? Obviously, the answer from the Word of God is a resounding NO! Birthdays are one more Satanic deception, like Christmas and Easter, which foster and inculcate the wrong kind of spirit and demeanor in a child. Therefore such an observance is an abomination in the sight of God. Birthday celebrations are not among the Biblical customs of the Bible
The fact is, the Bible is totally SILENT on the date of the birth of every single servant of God, including Abraham, Noah, Moses, Samuel, David, the apostles, and most important of all, Jesus Christ Himself!
In God’s sight, the actual time and day of a person’s birth is not the important thing. Wise king Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, under divine inspiration, “A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of birth” (Ecclesiastes 7:1, NRSV).
The Early Church
The day of one’s birth is not the important thing. It is merely the beginning of our life’s journey. What is important is what we DO with our lives, not how or where we begin.
Origen of Alexandria, in 245 A.D., wrote in a dissertation on Leviticus:
“None of the saints can be
found who ever held a feast or a banquet upon his birthday, or rejoiced on the day when his
son or daughter was born. But sinners rejoice and make merry on such days. For we find in the Old
Testament that Pharaoh, king of
For the true Christian, this life is a life of struggle and overcoming. The flesh is weak and prone to sin and lust. The carnal human mind is enmity against God (Romans 8:7). We must learn to throttle, subjugate, and subdue the pulls of the flesh, by the power of God's Spirit (Romans 7:1-25; 8:1-14).
Therefore, we do not celebrate the day we put on this fleshly tabernacle, but rather the day when we will put it off, and be clothed upon with a NEW BODY, pure and perfect, from heaven (Romans 8:22-23). In the meantime “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (verse 23).
The Christian Attitude
For the true Christian, this
life is a life of trials and tests. As David wrote, “Many are the afflictions
of the righteous” (Psalms 34:19). And
the apostle Paul declared, “We must through much tribulation enter into the
The apostle Paul also wrote, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.”
“For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh” (II Cor.4:8-11).
For Christians, this present mortal life is not an end in itself. It is filled with trials, tests, troubles, and pains. We do not celebrate our birth into the “vail of tears,” but we celebrate our NEW BIRTH in CHRIST which will occur at the resurrection, when the Messiah returns! Our hope is for the coming of Christ, and the resurrection!
Because we suffer greatly and
often, in the flesh, we do not glory in the flesh, or in the day of our fleshly
birth. It is of no consequence. But we look to the future, not to the past, and
This present physical life, therefore, is a proving ground. It is like going to school. We don’t graduate until death, or until the coming of the Lord! Do people celebrate when they begin to go to school or college? Or don’t they celebrate when they GRADUATE AND GET THEIR DIPLOMA? Merely beginning life is nothing to boast about! It is where we end up that really counts!
Paul wrote, in the very next chapter of II Corinthians, “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens. For in this we GROAN, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is FROM HEAVEN. . . For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being BURDENED: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of LIFE” (II Cor. 5:1-4).
As Paul wrote in I Corinthians, “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (I Cor. -14).
Paul felt so strongly about this fact, that he declared, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men MOST MISERABLE” (verse 19). But our hope is not for this life! Paul went on, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (v. 20).
This entire chapter shows us that the true hope of the Christian is the resurrection of the dead, when we shall all “be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be CHANGED. For this corruption must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (I Cor. -52).
That is the day we will celebrate -- not our physical birthdays, when we were literally born into a lifetime of struggle, trials, suffering, death, misery, and privation, persecution, strife, and pain. Not at all! We look forward to and celebrate the second coming of Christ, and the resurrection of the dead saints which will occur at His coming!
As Paul wrote to the Philipians, “Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but LOSS for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but DUNG, that I may win Christ...That I may know him, and the POWER of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:8, 10-11).
This was Paul's one ambition, one driving desire, in life. He declared, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, FORGETTING THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE BEHIND (such as birthdays!), and REACHING FORTH unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
This present life is as nothing. It is full of pain and suffering. If we follow Christ, then we will suffer as He suffered, leaving us an example (I Peter ; ). But the end result -- the eternal reward ahead of us -- makes it all worthwhile!
During this life we experience the “fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. ). We are one with Him in suffering, that we might become one with Him in glory and eternal life!
Paul wrote, “Who shall CHANGE OUR VILE BODY, that it might be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil. 3:21).
How much greater this is, than celebrating our birthdays of this fragile, temporary, transitory, weak, clay, human existence!
Avoid Pagan Birthdays
The World Book -- Childcraft International says regarding “Holidays and Birthdays,” “For thousands of years people all over the world have thought of a birthday as a very special day. Long ago, people believed that on a birthday a person could be helped by good spirits, or hurt by evil spirits. So, when a person had a birthday, friends and relatives gathered to protect him or her. And that's how birthday parties began.”
“The idea of putting candles on
birthday cakes goes back to ancient
“Artemis was the goddess of the moon. The Greeks celebrated her birthday once each month by bringing special cakes to her temple. The cakes were round like a full moon. And, because the moon glows with light, the cakes were decorated with lighted candles.”
This authority goes on:
“More and more, though, people the world over attach a certain magic to their actual date of birth. . . We may wear a ring with our birthstone in it for good luck. And when we blow out the candles on our birthday cake, we are careful to keep what we wished a secret. If we tell, of course, our wish won't come true.
“In other words, WE FOLLOW MANY OF THE OLD BIRTHDAY BELIEFS. We pay attention to the meanings of old-time birth symbols. And WE CARRY ON THE OLD CELEBRATIONS. We don’t necessarily take them seriously. We do these things mainly for fun. But it is also possible that there is something deep inside us that wants to believe.”
Why do people say, “Happy birthday!” to each other? Says this authority, “For the good wishes of our friends and relatives are supposed to protect us from evil spirits.”
What about birthday thumps, bumps, pinches, and the like?
“In many parts of the world, it is a tradition to give the birthday child pinches, smacks, spanks, thumps, bumps, or punches. Even though they may hurt a little, they are said to be very lucky. . .
“The reason for birthday spanks is to spank away any evil spirits and send them scurrying far into the distance. Punches, thumps, and pinches, the harder the better, are supposed to do the very same thing. . .
“Party snappers, horns, bursting balloons, firecrackers, and other noisemakers are just one more way of trying to scare off any bad-luck spirits that may be hovering about.”
What about traditional birthday games, such as “Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey”?
“The games we play at birthday parties are often a symbol of trying to know the unknown. In this case, of course, the unknown is the future, or the new year of life that lies ahead for the birthday child.
“One of the oldest birthday games is Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey. A large picture of a donkey without a tail is pinned to the wall. Each child at the party is given a donkey’s tail made out of paper and a pin to stick through it. Then, one by one, the children are blindfolded. They are spun around a few times and pointed in the general direction of the donkey. The child who pins the tail the closest to where it should be on the donkey wins the prize.
“There are other versions of this game, such as Pin-the Nose-on-the-Clown or Pin-the-Ear-on-the-Bunny. But the idea of trying to guess correctly, while blindfolded, is the same.”
All these customs and traditions connected with the observance of birthdays have to do with guessing the future, good wishes for the future, good luck charms against evil spirits, and the like. All the birthday rituals, games, and ceremonies are a form of well-wishing toward the birthday child, which are supposed to work their magic in the year ahead.
But, as we have seen, the custom is totally PAGAN! The ceremonies and games involve warding off evil spirits and protecting the birthday child from evil. These are pagan customs – vain and foolish rituals -- nothing but useless pagan SUPERSTITION!
Should God’s people have anything to do with ceremonies that trace back ancient pagan societies and pagan times, involving pagan practices? Should a true Christian indulge himself or his or her children in pagan birthday parties, just because they seem so attractive, fun, and “innocuous”?
The Word of God thunders, “What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?
“And what agreement hath the
“Wherefore COME OUT FROM AMONG THEM, and BE YE SEPARATE, saith the Lord, and touch not the UNCLEAN THING; and I will receive you, and I will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (II Corinthians 6:14-18).
Let’s look at this custom objectively. Why should we subject our children to it? All the comparisons, who gets the best present, competition, and strife that inevitably follows? Let’s ge honst and face it. In God’s sight, birthday parties and celebrations are not clean, honest, honorable, fun things to do. They are unclean things – and lead a child in the wrong direction. They turn people away from the truths of God and idolize the SELF. Therefore, as Christians, we should have nothing whatsoever to do with them!
Having said this, we must remember that our neighbors don’t know these things or see things things like we do. They think it’s all innocent fun. Even other members of our own families may think the same way. They wonder why we won’t participate in these things – “for the children.”
Although we don’t want to compromise the word of God, or ever do anything He tells us to avoid, that does not mean we need to offend other people, or set a wrong example toward them. We should always be gracious, and kind, and loving of others, and patient with them, avoiding unnecessary controversy and arguments.
If a family member or relative has a birthday, and invites you, you can simply explain the situation, and your own beliefs, in a humble, positive manner. And decline the invitation.
However, if the other family or individual says there is not going to be anything pagan, or the usual birthday customs, that it is merely a time to get together for family fellowship, or friendship, for a nice meal, with a cake, and that it is just a family event, that would not necessarily be wrong. We should not go overboard in these things.
Solomon also wrote, “Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, NRSV).
Always be discreet, modest, and friendly, in dealing with people. Attending a simple family dinner on one’s birthday, where family members give a present to honor one member’s birthday, is not the same thing as holding a birthday bash and inviting all the kids in the neighborhood, or a big political event, or a huge public celebration.
A small family affair, just for the family, I believe, would be all right in God’s sight, with no emphasis on the birthday itself or any pagan trappings. Sometimes it may seem difficult to get our balance in these things, but we can do it if we persevere, and do all things in love and wisdom.
We don’t need to fall into the ditch along the right hand side of the road, or plunge into the ditch alongside the left hand side of the road, either. We should simply use caution – take care – be careful – and be prayerful – a draw a line between right and wrong. A simple dinner, with a few presents for your loved one (son, daughter, father, mother, etc.), would be perfectly in line with God’s Word. For God does command us, “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus ).
And Paul also says, “And father, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (see Ephesians 6:1-4). “Fathers, do not provoke your children or they may lose heart” (Colossians ).
Children, be good to your parents; and you parents, be good to your children. Don’t deny them good things. And to give them something special on their birthday is perfectly all right. Just be sure you don’t allow it to become a pagan “birthday party” or “birthday celebration” of the sort which has wrong connotations and creates the wrong atmosphere and imparts the wrong kind of influence.
Keep God’s principles in mind. Be balanced! Avoid excess! Avoid any and all pagan trappings or anything resembling evil. But on the other hand, don’t be afraid to give something nice to a family member or relative on their day birth or any other day of the year.