Origins and Meanings of ...

Birthday Traditions

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What are the origins of some of the customs used to celebrate birthdays? Following are some secular publications and their comments of these origins.

Birthdays in the Bible

Birthday celebrations are mentioned only in connection with royalty, viz. Pharaoh's birthday (Gen. 40:28), the monthly celebration of the birthday of Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Macc. 6:7), and the birthday feast given by Herod Antipas (Matt. 14:8, Mark 6:21). The day of our king to which Hosea refers (7:5), may have been the anniversary of the king's birth or of his accession. A. R. S. Kennedy

Job's sons: The Living Bible, "Every year when Job's sons had birthdays..." (Job 1:4, but this translation is uncertain). Job does appear to have had royal status, "He was the greatest man of all the people of the East" (Job 1:3), and some speculate that he was connected to Pharoah Cheops of Egypt.

The Christian Church has always celebrated its own birthday - the Feast of Pentecost, Acts 2

In Biblical times, their calendar did not operate as precisely as ours does today. Today, only people born on Feb. 29th do not have an exact birthday every year. In Biblical times, many more people found themselves in this category. It may be that, in Biblical times, most people had their "birthdays" in the same way as race horses do today: on the first day of the civil year. In Biblical times, that would have been about Sept. 1st. (or with their month names, Tishri 1st, the Feast of Trumpets).

In modern times, many Jews perceive the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashana) to represent the "birthday of mankind" and the "cosmic birthday".

If you have knowledge of documentation that "All Israelites incremented their ages on the Feast of Trumpets", please tell us using the comment form below.

The German periodical "Schwäbische Zeitung" (magazine supplement Zeit und Welt) of April 3/4, 1981 on page 4 stated: "The various customs with which people today celebrate their birthdays have a long history. Their origins lie in the realm of magic and religion. The customs of offering congratulations, presenting gifts and celebrating - complete with lighted candles - in ancient times were meant to protect the birthday celebrant from the demons and to ensure his security for the coming year. . . . Down to the fourth century Christianity rejected the birthday celebration as a pagan custom."

The book The Lore of Birthdays (New York, 1952) by Ralph and Adelin Linton, on pages 8, 18-20 had this to say: "The Greeks believed that everyone had a protective spirit or daemon who attended his birth and watched over him in life. This spirit had a mystic relation with the god on whose birthday the individual was born.

The Romans also subscribed to this idea. . . . This notion was carried down in human belief and is reflected in the guardian angel, the fairy godmother and the patron saint. . . . The custom of lighted candles on the cakes started with the Greeks. . . . Honey cakes round as the moon and lit with tapers were placed on the temple altars of [Artemis]. . . . Birthday candles, in folk belief, are endowed with special magic for granting wishes. . . . Lighted tapers and sacrificial fires have had a special mystic significance ever since man first set up altars to his gods. The birthday candles are thus an honor and tribute to the birthday child and bring good fortune"

This same book, on page 20, also had this to say about the traditional greeting of 'Happy Birthday': "Birthday greetings and wishes for happiness are an intrinsic part of this holiday. . . . originally the idea was rooted in magic. The working of spells for good and evil is the chief usage of witchcraft. One is especially susceptible to such spells on his birthday, as one's personal spirits are about at the time. . . . Birthday greetings have power for good or ill because one is closer to the spirit world on this day."

And Horst Fuhrmann, professor of medieval history at the University of Regensburg, made this comment about birthdays: "The birthday celebration was in honor of one's guardian angel or god, whose altar was decorated with flowers and wreaths; sacrifices were offered to the god of festival, friends offered congratulations and brought gifts." Furthermore, he stated in the German newspaper "Süddeutschen Zeitung": "Great prominence was given the birthday parties held for the emperor, replete with parades, public banquets, circus plays, and the hunting of animals: spectacles disgusting to the [early] Christians."

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