It’s February, which means that, against all the laws of logic and reason, this blog has been going on for five years now. That’s five long years of embarrassing the Catholic blogosphere with my feeble attempts to examine the teachings of the Church through the lens of some of the most rotten movies ever made. But hey, five years is five years. That’s got to call for some kind of celebration, right?
Well, maybe not. You see, according to the movies, even something as mundane as a birthday party is a just another opportunity for death and destruction. Take Happy Birthday To Me for example. In that movie, all poor Melissa Sue Anderson wanted was to have a nice quiet party with her friends and her father, but all these nasty little accidents kept getting in the way. You know, everyday mishaps like a shish kebab getting shoved down someone’s throat or some guy’s face being smashed into the furiously spinning spokes of a dirt bike. I don’t care what you say, no amount of cake or ice cream is going to stop things like that from spoiling a good time for everybody.
But it isn’t just the movies who think that birthday parties might be something you’d do well to avoid. According to some folks… celebrating your birthday could cost you your very soul!!!
Okay, so maybe that statement is a tad bit hyperbolic, but there are actually groups out there like the Jehovah's Witnesses and some of the assemblies in the Sacred Name Movement who teach that you should avoid the modern practice of celebrating birthdays on the basis that the custom has its roots in paganism. They come by this belief from a combination of a number of sources. First off is the fact that Bible only explicitly mentions two people celebrating their birthday; Pharaoh and Herod. And since those two aren’t exactly role model material, why follow in their footsteps? It is also speculated that the festivities mentioned in the first book of Job might have been birthday parties, and given that Satan killed everybody there with a tornado (even Happy Birthday To Me didn’t pull that one off), maybe such undertakings are something to avoid.
Of course, just because some bad people engage in a certain activity doesn’t necessarily make said activity inherently evil. So modern critics of birthday celebrations also appeal to authorities from the days of the early Church. For instance, the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his work Against Apion, wrote that "nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children" while early Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria declared that "none of the saints can be found who ever held a feast or a banquet upon his birthday, or rejoiced on the day when his son or daughter was born." A little later, in his treatise Against the Heathen, Christian theologian Arnobius wrote that: "you worship with couches [and] altars...by celebrating their services and their birthdays...to whom it was fitting that you should assail with keenest hatred." Well, from all that it would seem pretty obvious there were indeed some early Jews and Christians who had trouble with celebrating birthdays. But you have to be a little careful when reading these guys. Josephus wasn’t infallible (Against Apion also claims, completely against Jewish tradition, that the Hebrew scriptures only contained 22 books), Origen died a heretic, and Arnobius believed the Greco-Roman gods were real beings. None of which means their exhortations against birthday celebrations were categorically wrong, just that they need to be approached within the larger context of Church teaching throughout the ages rather than just taking a few sound bytes as dogma.
The hint to the solution to the birthday problem comes in the New Testament. You see, right from the beginning the Church was having to deal with the local customs people were bringing with them when they joined up. This included things like what day to worship on, what kinds of food to eat, and yes, probably even things like celebrating birthdays for emperors and gods (yeah, apparently some gods had birthdays, who knew). That’s why St. Paul was compelled to write in Romans 14:5,6, “[For] one person considers one day more important than another, while another person considers all days alike. Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the Lord. Also whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while whoever abstains, abstains for the Lord and gives thanks to God.” Basically, in non-essential matters such as festivals and food stuff, it was the spirit they were carried out in that really mattered.
So yes, based on some early writings, it does seem likely there was a time when the pagan association with birthday celebrations was so strong that it caused scandal for Christians to participate in them. But those days are long gone now, and there seems to be nobody left who thinks of birthdays as worshiping false gods or other human beings, they’re just celebrating the day someone was born. And given the “let’s sterilize the whole world” times we live in, celebrating the day God gave us the gift of life seems like a pretty good idea. And if our celebrations are done in that spirit, we are “observing our birthdays for the Lord” as St. Paul might say. So, if it’s your birthday, or that of someone you care for, go ahead and bake a cake and light some candles (even though pagans once ate cake and lit candles). It’s okay.
Unless your Melissa Sue Anderson, in which case do us all a favor and just stay home.