The History of Western Birthday Celebrations
Birthday celebrations originated in Europe in ancient times to ward off evil spirits.
At the time it was feared that evil spirits where especially attracted to the person on the day of his birth, to protect him, friends and family would come over bringing good wishes and gifts to keep the spirits away.
The earliest recording about celebrating a birthday comes from the book of genesis, chapter 40 verse 20, the recording of a birthday from the pharaoh and his celebration with a big feast, which leads us to assume that Egyptians did celebrate birthdays to. It is unknown if it was only the rich/nobility or that it was practiced by the general public.
The Greek are not known for celebrating birthdays, they consider the day of a person’s birth and his death to be a “dirty” day and so it seems unlikely that Greeks celebrated birthdays.
There is however a custom that might have its origin in ancient Greek times. That is the use of birthday cakes and candles, the ancient Greeks used to sacrifice round cakes to the goddess Artemisia as a symbol of the moon and light candles on top of those to make it look like it was glowing.
The Romans celebrated at the very least 3 different types of ‘dies natales’ or birthdays.
In the private sphere they celebrated the birthdays of themself, family and friends with giving gifts and banquets.
In the public sphere they celebrated at the natales or birthdays of temples and citys, those natales where anniversaries of the days wich particular cults or citys where founded.
In addition from the time of the Principate, the roman people celebrated the birthdays of past and present emperors and members of the imperial family, as well as the emperors natales imperii of accession days.
In the early days of christianity the celebration of birthdays was shunned.
It was considered a sin to celebrate a birth and it was also considered to be a pagan practice, most likely related to the fact that the pagan romans celebrated birthdays with banquets extensively.
Origen Adamantius, a early Christian writer(c.185-254) states :
‘It would be a sin to consider celebrating the birth, even of that of Christ.’
This view only started to change later on, and by medieval times the custom was that the ordinary folks celebrated their name day while the nobility celebrated their birthday.
Modern day birthdays are celebrated all over the world in most religions, with some exceptions:
some religious groups like the Jehovah witnesses refrain from celebrating birthdays due to historical connections with magic, superstitions, and Paganism.
While at the same time in some Roman Catholic and orthodox countries the people celebrate their name days instead of birthdays.
- Kathryn Argetsinger(1992). “Birthday Rituals: Friends and Patrons in Roman Poetry and Cult”. source
- “Birthday in Ancient Greece“ source
- Bob Thiel, Ph.D . “Did Early Christians Celebrate Birthdays?“ source
- Wikipedia. “Birthday customs and celebrations“ source
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