We all do it . . . celebrate our birthdays. When we were kids we wanted to be older, and as we get older we can’t believe how fast the years fly by. In between is our life as we’ve lived it one decade, one year, one month, one day, one hour, and one minute at a time. For me (hint–my birthday happens to be today), the days leading up to my birthday are filled with more anticipation then the actual day can live up to when it finally arrives. That’s probably because I’ve been around for a long time now and the “glow” of celebrating a birthday isn’t quite the same as it was when I was younger.
I stumbled across an article online today titled, “This Is Why You Get To Celebrate Your Birthday Every Year,” by Todd Van Luling, senior culture reporter at HuffPost, Chicago, and here is what he had to say:
Have you ever thought about why we even bother to celebrate birthdays? When you think about it, they’re really just an opportunity for your friends and family to come together and congratulate you for surviving another year. But for some reason it’s become far more than that.
Although research on the exact origin of birthdays and birthday cakes remains inconclusive, there is enough of a consensus to piece together an approximate history. Perhaps someday a Birthdayologist will come along to set the record completely straight, but until then, we’ve compiled this short list of historians’ best hypotheses on the evolution of birthday celebrations and the delicious cakes that so often accompany them.
Here are seven of the major developments throughout history that have led to you being able to do this once a year:
1. Egyptians started the party. When pharaohs were crowned in ancient Egypt they were considered to have transformed into gods. This divine promotion made their coronation date much more important than their birth into the world. Scholars have pointed to the Bible’s reference of a Pharaoh’s birthday as the earliest known mention of a birthday celebration (around 3,000 B.C.E.), but Egyptologist Dr. James Hoffmeier believes this is referencing the subject’s coronation date, since that would have been the Pharaoh’s “birth” as a god.
2. Greeks added candles to cakes. The Greeks offered moon-shaped cakes to Artemis as a form of tribute to the lunar goddess. To recreate the radiance of the moon and her perceived beauty, Greeks lit candles and put them on cakes for a glowing effect. The Greeks most likely took the idea of birthday celebration from the Egyptians, since just like the celebration of the pharaohs as “gods,” the Greeks were celebrating their gods and goddesses.
3. Ancient Romans were the first to celebrate birthdays for the common man (but just the men). The prevailing opinion seems to be that the Romans were the first civilization to celebrate birthdays for non-religious figures. Romans would celebrate birthdays for friends and families, while the government created public holidays to observe the birthdays of more famous citizens. Those celebrating a 50th birthday party would receive a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese. All of this said, female birthdays still weren’t celebrated until around the 12th century.
4. Christians initially considered birthdays to be a pagan ritual. Due to its belief that humans are born with “original sin” and the fact that early birthdays were tied to “pagan” gods, the Christian Church considered birthday celebrations evil for the first few hundred years of its existence. Around the 4th century, Christians changed their minds and began to celebrate the birthday of Jesus as the holiday of Christmas. This new celebration was accepted into the church partly in hopes of recruiting those already celebrating the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.
5. Contemporary birthday cakes were invented by German bakers. Although the general idea of celebrating birthdays had already started taking off around the world — like in China, where a child’s first birthday was specifically honored — ‘Kinderfeste,’ which came out of late 18th century Germany, is the closest prerequisite to the contemporary birthday party. This celebration was held for German children, or “kinder,” and involved both birthday cake and candles. Kids got one candle for each year they’d been alive, plus another to symbolize the hope of living for at least one more year. Blowing out the candles and making a wish was also a part of these celebrations.
6. The Industrial Revolution brought delicious cakes to the masses. For quite some time, birthday celebrations involving sugary cakes were only available to the very wealthy, as the necessary ingredients were considered a luxury. But the industrial revolution allowed celebrations like ‘kinderfeste’ and the subsequent equivalents in other cultures to proliferate. Not only did the required ingredients become more abundant, but bakeries also started offering pre-made cakes at lower prices due to advances in mass production… [circa bakeries of the late 19th century].
7. “The Birthday Song” was a remix, kind of. In 1893, Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill wrote a song they called, “Good Morning To All,” which was intended to be sung by students before classes began. The song eventually caught on across America, giving rise to a number of variations. Robert Coleman eventually published a songbook in 1924, adding a few extra lyrics that would quickly come to overshadow the original lines. The new rendition became the version we now all know, “Happy Birthday To You.”
BONUS: Marie Antoinette didn’t say “Let them eat cake.” First off, nobody attributed this quote to Marie Antoinette until about 50 years after her death, when French critic and journalist Alphonse Karr claimed Antoinette had said the phrase, but essentially only sourced rumors. Despite Karr’s theory, the phrase “let them eat cake” actually first appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography, “The Confessions.” In the book, Rousseau is afraid to go into a bakery because he feels under-dressed. He then muses, “Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: ‘Let them eat brioche.’”
Antoinette was actually just a little girl when Rousseau’s work was written. While it’s possible that she had read Rousseau’s line and was quoting it in the infamous moment (and therefore not making a tone deaf remark about poverty), Antoinette biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, disapproves of this theory.
“[Let them eat cake] was said 100 years before her by Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV. It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither,” Fraser said in defense of the young princess. Marie Antoinette’s name should be cleared!
Let us all eat more cake! (Quote source here. Links in article provided by Todd Van Luling.)
To children of all ages, a birthday is a reason to celebrate. But why? What are the reasons for many of our birthday celebrations?
Why do we celebrate birthdays?
The idea of celebrating the date of your birth is a pagan tradition. In fact, many Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays historically, because of that link to paganism.
Pagans thought that evil spirits lurked on days of major changes, like the day you turn a year older.
The ancient Greeks believed that each person had a spirit that attended his or her birth, and kept watch. That spirit “had a mystic relation with the God on whose birthday the individual was born,” says the book The Lore of Birthdays.
Why do we blow out candles on our birthdays?
The candles were a response to the evil spirits. They showed up to communicate with the gods. A light, in the darkness.
The Germans are credited with starting the kids birthday tradition in the 1700s. They put candles on tortes for “kinderfeste,” one for each year of life, along with some extras to signify upcoming years.
Why do we sing “Happy Birthday To You?”
It’s the most recognizable song in the English language, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and it started as a song for schoolkids.
In 1893, two Kentucky schoolteachers, Patty and Mildred Hill wrote “Good Morning To All.” The tune was published in a book for schoolteachers.
It’s unclear who changed the words to “Happy Birthday To You,” but in 1933, that song was in an Irving Berlin musical. One of the Hill’s sisters sued, arguing that they held the copyright to the song. They won the case, and the courts have ruled that copyright still holds today.
In fact, some believe the song is under copyright until 2030. The owner of the copyright splits proceeds with the Hill’s estate, reportedly $2 million a year.
What’s the most common birth date?
Oct. 5 is considered to be the most common birthday in the United States. The reason is pretty obvious: go back 9 months, and you’ll find a conception date of New Year’s Eve. May 22 is considered to be the least common birthday in the United States. (Quote source here.)
In almost every culture around the world, celebrations of life take place and, arguably, nothing is as universally celebrated as the birthday. But whether Christians can or should celebrate birthdays has been a topic of debate in the religious space. While some take the stance that you’re simply glorifying another’s life, others believe it is a form of Idolatry and celebrating it takes away from the admiration and glory of God.
But what does the Bible say about it?
Nowhere in Scripture is the observance of birthdays condemned as sinful or prohibited, and birthday observance as a doctrine is not mentioned in the Bible. However, there are people who claim there is indirect evidence that birthday celebration is a sin and shouldn’t be celebrated by Christians. They generally make the following claims:
First, when the Bible mentions birthdays which it has on three separate occasions, terrible things occurred. The first mention is in the Book of Genesis. Pharaoh, who was the Egyptian kind, celebrated his birthday by executing his butler and chief baker (Gen. 40:1-23). Joseph was given a special interpretation of the incident by God through a dream, and was told through this dream that Pharaoh would use his own birthday occasion to take his baker’s life and it would come three days after he interpreted the dream. The baker was hung at the party just as the dream foretold.
The next time a birthday is mentioned in the Bible is in the New Testament in the book of Matthew 14:3-11 when Herod the Tetrarch grudgingly ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. Verses 6-8 mentions when Herod’s birthday party, in which he got carried away and made a promise that he later regretted but couldn’t back down from. Because of this, John the Baptist’s, a great figure of the Bible, life was taken.
The last mention is in the Book of Job, with an account of a celebration that took place by Job’s children. The Bible says in Job 1:4 that Job’s seven sons “went and feasted in their houses, every one his day; and sent and called for their sisters to eat and drink with them.” This celebration brought Job a spirit of concern and when this period of feasting had run its course, Job planned to make arrangement for them to be purified by sacrificing a burnt offering in the morning, thinking that his children had sinned and cursed against God in their hearts. We later learn in this story that during the birthday party celebration of Job’s older son, all of Job’s ten children lost their lives by a mighty wind that struck and collapsed their home. As you progress to Job 3, you see a very pained Job, in which he spends much of his time cursing his birth. The loss of all his children left him in a state of shock, while also sobering him, bringing him to a place where he cursed the day he was born, acknowledging there was nothing good about his own birth.
While these three incidences resulted in murderous executions, they don’t show or prove that the proper observance of a birthday is displeasing to God. Remember, Pharaoh and Herod both executed as they pleased. Job’s children lost their lives due to a natural disaster, and while this event troubled Job greatly, he grew a great deal through this experience. While these events took place on their birthdays, this doesn’t mean that it is wrong to celebrate your birthday.
Some point to the origin of birthdays as a reason that Christians shouldn’t celebrate them. Birthday celebrations are originally of pagan origin, and came about through the practice of astrology. Thousands of years ago, these pagan astrologers invented calendars and calculated birth dates for kings, rulers and their successors through the monitoring of the stars; they examined horoscopes and birthday omens because they thought the fate of those in positions of power would affect all society. Because of this, many people put their trust in horoscopes over God. But just because something is of pagan origin doesn’t mean we agree with their belief system or it shouldn’t be observed for this reason. Some pagans traditionally participated in sinful activities at weddings and funerals, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice them. These factors shouldn’t stop us from having birthday parties as long as we reflect those celebrations with the right values and keep God in mind.
Everyone has a birthday with millions of Christians celebrating this momentous occasions each year. While this doesn’t mean that because so many people observe it, it makes it okay, but when we turn to Scripture, it doesn’t tell us that the celebration of life is a sin. Birthdays are similar to anniversaries, and we celebrate so many of them in our culture: weddings, dates of employment, even when our congregations are founded. Birthdays are just as acceptable. Remember, God calls us to celebrate life abundantly (John 10:10), that includes our own lives which God chose for us before we were even born. Why wouldn’t God want us to acknowledge that we are thankful for the blessing of life? As long as what we are celebrating is not idolatrous, out of line with Godly values and does not take away from the glory of God, it is okay for us to celebrate them. (Quote source here.)
I have to admit that after celebrating many birthdays (mine and others) that I had no idea about the history of birthdays until I went searching for articles on it today. And now you know, too. There is one thing I did already know which is found in Job 14:5, “You [God] have decided the length of our lives. You know how many months we will live, and we are not given a minute longer.” And that includes everyone who has ever been born from the beginning of time until now and going forward.
I’ll end this post with Psalm 90:12 which states:
Teach us to number our days . . .
That we may gain . . .
A heart of wisdom . . . .
YouTube Video: “Teach Us O Lord to Number Our Days” by Bob Fitts: