Unbiblical Parties? Some Thoughts on Birthdays

In Christian restorationists’ attempt to eradicate “unbiblical practices” including “unbiblical parties,” birthday celebration is banned. While there’s no such thing as “Thou shall not hold birthday parties” in the Ten Commandments, they hold that birthday parties are portrayed in the Bible as a thing for pagans, and yes infidels.

Birthdays were not usually celebrated during the early times of the church. It is for this reason that the feast of the Birth of our Lord was not celebrated until the 4th century. During the times of persecution, the Christians were looking forward to the life that is to come in the Parousia so they find little reason to celebrate their entrance to earthly life. What matters more for them is their entrance to eternal life when they die. No wonder, we hold today the feast of a saint usually on the day of their death rather than of their birth.

Neither celebrating birthdays is popular among the Jews as well. The practice appears more evident in other cultures but not in ancient Jewish community. In fact, there are only two birthday parties explicitly mentioned in the Bible: that of the Pharaoh (Gen 40:20) and that of Herod (Mt. 4:6; Mk. 6:21). But these guys were not even Jews. The former was an Egyptian and the latter an Idumean by birth and had embraced Greco-roman beliefs. Herod’s birthday party is more familiar to many since it is this party that claimed John the Baptist’s head—thanks to Herodias and perhaps the superb pole dancing performance by her daughter.

The Jewish historian Josephus narrated that Jewish families were prohibited to have celebrations in honour of one’s birth. Even the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish oral tradition put into writing, is silent about the practice except for some indications referring to non-Jews who were said to be doing it. On the other hand, remembering one’s date of birth is closely related to astrology as it has been made as reference in divination like what people do today in consulting horoscopes in newspapers. To the Jews who staunchly abhor divination, there could be no reason then for a person even to remember the date of his birth to celebrate it in the years to come. Such attitude is reminiscent in this verse from Ecclesiastes: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth (7:1).”

In Christian restorationists’ attempt to eradicate “unbiblical practices” including “unbiblical parties,” birthday celebration is banned. While there’s no such thing as “Thou shall not hold birthday parties” in the Ten Commandments, they hold that birthday parties are portrayed in the Bible as a thing for pagans, and yes infidels. Indeed, nowhere to be found in the Bible such instances where Moses, David or even our Lord Jesus Christ delivering a birthday speech before an eager audience.

So are we going to burn now our old birthday photographs and smash tokens we had received all this years? Are we going to beat our breast while saying these words by Jeremiah himself: “Curse be day on which I was born!” (Jer. 20:14)? Are we becoming less Christians or, to put this way, apostates by holding birthday parties? Why are we even asking this anyway!?

It is natural for us to be grateful of the things we had received freely. Among the things that deserves to be thankful of is the life we received from God. This is what birthday reminds us of. Moreover, while it is true that the end of a thing is better than its beginning (Eccl. 7:8), we gain our heavenly merit not necessary by how we die but how we live. Remembering our birthdays allows us to reflect how so far we have spent our life on earth and how grateful we were to this gift of life. As far as I know, such attitude is never unbiblical. David himself had the same thing in mind when he said, “Bless the Lord my soul; do not forget all the gifts of God! (Ps. 103:2).” Life itself is a gift. During birthdays, we thank God for this gift.

Yes, birthdays may not appeal to Jews during the ancient times perhaps because of its pagan association, the celebration itself is no way prohibited in the Bible. The Jewish prohibition which Josephus’ reported concerns actually on how birthdays are made as “occasions in drinking to excess” but not to explicitly say that such parties are unlawful themselves on account of doctrinal matters. In fact, Jewish communities today celebrate birthdays. It is even said that rabbis have special thanksgiving prayers for people who are reaching 70 years of age, an important milestone fondly referred to as someone’s “second Bar Miztvah!”

Contrary to these hardcore Christians who are willing to discredit 2000-year church development to “restore” primitive Christianity with all its “scrupulosities,” birthdays never make a Christian an apostate or a pagan for that matter. As what has been discussed earlier, birthdays were not among the concerns of a Christian from the first to third century A.D. They are preoccupied with the so-called “last things” such as death, redemption and heaven because in those days Roman persecution was widespread and end-time promises are their most cherished treasure. But to think about death, one needs to ponder also life and in effect its beginnings.

It is the same reason perhaps why at last, the Christians during the 4th century realized that it was fitting to celebrate the birth of Christ. To a community of believers who were taught by the Scriptures to remember Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, they found out that such sacrifice did not actually begin in Calvary but in Bethlehem: when God gave his only begotten Son for our redemption. While Christmas is empty without the meaning of Easter, Easter would not have been possible without Christmas. While we were taught to strive hard to gain heaven at the life’s twilight, our life attests whether we deserved to be looked upon with mercy or not. And as we celebrate our birthdays every year, we confront ourselves with the question, “So far, how did you spend your life?” It turns out then that birthday is not bad at all. It is our life post where every year we ask ourselves about our decisions, sentiments and hopes. But it is not just a day of reflection but a grateful celebration to the gift that was generously given by God—an attitude which is, beyond doubt, truly Biblical!

And this is what I am going to do today. Salamat sa Diyos!  🙂

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