LCN Article


Birthdays—A Celebration for Christians or Not?

January / February 2018

Rod McNair

It is a fact of life that everyone grows older, and for each of us there is one day each year when we are considered a year older than we were the day before: our birthday. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the passage of time, as another year of life goes by. We know, for example, that Moses certainly knew how old he was. Scripture records that, toward the end of his life, he told the Israelites, "I am one hundred and twenty years old today. I can no longer go out and come in. Also the Lord has said to me, 'You shall not cross over this Jordan'" (Deuteronomy 31:2). Did "one hundred and twenty years old today" mean that Moses was making this statement on the exact anniversary of his birth? Perhaps, but what we do know is that there is no hint of a "birthday party" marking the anniversary of Moses' birth, like those in the household of Pharaoh (cf. Genesis 40:20–22).

Moses simply acknowledged his age. By contrast, many in the world today have grown used to the idea that their day of birth is an occasion on which friends, family members and coworkers are expected to lavish them with attention, gifts and revelry.

What can we learn from Scripture and history about observing birthdays?

After all, we are to follow Jesus Christ's example in all things, and Jesus did not mark the anniversary of His birth, nor did He make reference to it in any such fashion. Nor did any of the Apostles so much as even mention Christ's birth date or their own. It is interesting to note the teaching and tradition of the Jews in general around the time of Christ. Jewish historian Shmuel Safrai notes, "As some laws were concerned with a child's exact age, it may be assumed that Jewish families usually remembered the date of birth, but birthdays were not celebrated. Josephus even informs us that the Torah forbids the practice of turning the occasion of one's birth into an opportunity for celebration and drink. The gospels note the birthday celebrations of Herod Antipas, but tannaitic literature [from about the year 10 to approximately the year 220 CE] mentions the celebration of birthdays only as a Gentile practice" (The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, p. 767, 1987). Certainly, observance of birthdays as a celebration and party was not a part of Jewish tradition or teaching during the time of Christ or the New Testament Church.

The Bible mentions only two clear instances of birthday celebrations, both of which ended in tragedy (Genesis 40:20–22; Mark 6:21–28). One was a major festival for Pharaoh's household, which could have included hundreds of revelers. The other was King Herod's celebration, in Galilee, for all the nobles of his domain. On these occasions of carousing, which included massive consumption of food and alcohol, individuals were put to death for the celebrants' amusement.

Does the book of Job indicate that Job's sons observed their birthdays? Some point to this verse to support that idea: "And his sons would go and feast in their houses, each on his appointed day" (Job 1:4). Is "his appointed day" a vague reference to a birthday? Scripture does not say. However, we should also note that, if this is a "birthday" example, it is not entirely positive regarding the idea of birthday celebrations. We see that Job offered sacrifices afterward, on the assumption that his sons may have "sinned and cursed God in their hearts" while feasting (v. 5). We note, as well, that either Job was not invited or else chose not to attend.

Religious Roots

People are sometimes surprised to discover just how many traditions have non-Christian religious roots that are contrary to God's ways. Yet even some casual observers have noticed that the early Church taught against participation in the sort of birthday celebrations that are so common in our world today.

For example, writer Norm Schneider points out,

During the Christian era, the early followers of Christ didn't believe in celebrating birthdays, preferring—as was the case in earlier eras—of honoring one's death. Their belief was that only in death was there true deliverance worthy of honoring one's "death day" [a reference to Ecclesiastes 7:1, where Solomon asserts that the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth]. They also believed that Egyptian and Greek birthday celebrations were pagan festivals and should not be duplicated ("The Strange Origins of Our Modern Birthday Customs," August 13, 2008, associatedcontent.com).

Honoring a King

Concerning the world's "Christianity," Schneider goes on to observe that by "the fourth century, Christians—having generally agreed on the date of Christ's birth—began celebrating the event, ergo Christmas."

Indeed, the observance of Christmas and the celebration of birthdays went hand in hand as the vast majority of professing Christians fell into apostasy. Today, billions of professing Christians have, in effect, a sort of "birthday party for Christ" each year as they celebrate Christmas. However, when we read what Scripture tells us about the young Jesus Christ, we find no precedent for such celebration.

Instead, what do we find? When they saw the young Jesus—months after His birth—the wise men from the East "fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11). This was a momentous event, but it was not a birthday party—these were prominent men coming to visit the King. The custom of bringing a gift when coming before a king is still in practice today.

Marking Milestones

How should we view the milestones in our lives, as we make progress toward the Kingdom of God? The Bible reveals that God places far more importance on the development of spiritual character and our eventual spiritual birth into His Kingdom than on observing the beginning of our physical life (Ecclesiastes 7:1; Revelation 21:7; Romans 2:7; John 12:24–25). Accordingly, God does not want His people to become involved in worldly practices that lead to the destruction of character. Of course, God makes it plain that Christians are not to take part in "lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries" (1 Peter 4:3). But even when we believe we are avoiding such "extremes," birthday festivities are often focused on an element of greed—the desire for gifts and attention—as well as on vanity, selfishness and a spirit of competition. Such attitudes are certainly inappropriate for Christians in any situation. We know from Scripture that covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

Yet, we can mark important milestones in our lives in a godly manner if we focus on the larger picture.

Keeping the Big Picture

The right perspective on this issue has been explained in the past by Dr. Roderick C. Meredith. He mentioned in his July 21, 2008 sermon, titled "Building Faith and Courage," that he had just turned 78 years of age. Significantly, he added, "but without a birthday party." On the other hand, he also explained that "Mr. Armstrong gave his mother a dozen red roses on her birthdays, occasionally, and sometimes took her out for a nice dinner at the restaurant simply to honor her on such an occasion. It was not a 'birthday party' with candles, exchanging of presents and so forth. It was simply noting that God had given her another year of life and encouraging her and honoring her in that way. Often, we have stated that our own people may have a special meal prepared by the mother in the home for a child on his or her birthday and express thanks that our child has had another year of life" ("Focus on the Big Picture!" Ministerial Bulletin, January–February 2011). Certainly, it can be appropriate for parents to reminisce with their children about past joys and challenges of a child's life, as well as future plans and goals, when the child grows a year older. It's a totally different matter to have a birthday party "with candles, exchanging of presents and so forth," as Dr. Meredith explained.

Presiding Evangelist Gerald Weston has continued that teaching, as evidenced in his Living Church News article, "What Drives Your Decisions?" He noted, "It is evident from the scriptures that people knew how many years they lived…. However, not once do we read of a birthday party for any of God's servants…. Are we able to understand the difference between marking or recognizing the day of one's birth and celebrating it in a party atmosphere? Are we able to make wise judgments, based on the word of God? Do we follow the customs of this world, as sheep going to the slaughter? Or can we savor the things of God?" (September–October 2017).

In the Living Church of God, we recognize and encourage activities that are supported by Scripture and cultivate righteous character and a loving spirit within our families. We should avoid activities that contradict these values. As we come out of a sinful and self-focused world, we must each strive to develop God's mind so that we may make good decisions, as wise Christians "who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14).