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Why Celebrate Birthdays?
Reflection / Analysis
It is nigh time for the most important birthday of the year: Our Lord and Savior’s. No wonder we commemorate His visible Incarnation, praising God’s love for us, God’s humility, the fulfillment of the promised Savior. The only other two holy figures to receive liturgical honor on their earthly birthdays are Our Lady (September 8) and St. John the Baptist (June 24); and their celebrations are far outstripped by the grandeur and length of the season of Christmas.
But what about other birthdays? Why do we remember them—why do we celebrate our own?
Readers new to the Roman Martyrology may find themselves momentarily bemused at the frequent mention of birthdays. Why are such things mentioned in a book consisting of lists of saints and martyrs? Do we celebrate when saints are born? My students, who researched many an ancient saint in preparation for our annual All Saints’ Day festival, often ran into a different problem entirely: they could often find exact death days and years for saints, but only rarely would they be able to find birth dates and birth years!
These same students were both confused and amused to learn my American father is more often likely to remember my mother’s siblings’ birthdays than they are themselves. My mother’s culture didn’t find it important to commemorate the exact days each year. Many other cultures didn’t have a strong birthday tradition, either–not until recently. A few years ago, while staying with a friend’s family in Hungary, I discovered several interesting facts. First, Hungarian citizens are only allowed to name their children from a certain pre-approved list of names: most names are very traditional names that can be traced back to saints, as that area of the world was Christianized a thousand years ago. So, my friend’s Hungarian father explained that when he himself was young, it was traditional for people to celebrate their saint’s feast days, that is, their name days. One would prepare a bunch of snacks and drinks at one’s own home, and one’s friends would stop by throughout the day to have fun, eat, chat, and give name day greetings. Such a celebration was more important than one’s birthday!
The cultural phenomenon of birthdays celebrated on a wide scale, and by anyone outside of the very upper classes, seems to be a recent one. In fact, it’s easy to think of many possible historical reasons as to why birthdays weren’t important for most people: the problem of uncertain or shifting calendars does little to help one remember an exact birthday to begin with! Furthermore, many people could not afford to stop work or upkeep of the home to celebrate a birth, much less afford a celebration and extravagant gifts. Some historians also speculate that in prior centuries, when infant stillbirth and mortality rates were much higher, birthdays were not terribly important to observe.
Therefore, in historical records we find namely royal birthdays being observed as holidays, and only, of course, if the infant survived. So pharaohs, princes, and so on would have huge celebrations for their birthdays; but ordinary people would not; in Genesis 40, the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time throws a feast for his birthday, and there is great rejoicing at the birth of firstborn sons throughout the Bible, but there is little sign of birthdays being celebrated beyond the initial event itself. (The only other birthday celebration explicitly marked as such is that of Herod—the adulterer who had St. John the Baptist put to death after a debauched party!)
Christianity, in fact, enabled more widespread celebration of birthdays. The Julian and Gregorian calendars (whatever flaws there may be) helped standardize dates for the Western world. And churches kept close records of baptisms and family lines. Baptismal records existed in churches long before standard government birth certificates were being issued. By keeping sacramental records and family histories, the Church, as it does in many other ways, upheld the treasure and dignity of the lives which the Lord has given us. Furthermore, calendars (and clocks) which allowed us to relatively understand the passage of time, and our own lives, no doubt gave us a desire to mark days we considered special each year.
An alternate and implicitly anti-Christian view of the origin of the birthday tradition consists largely of the idea that as people began to have fewer children, and each child got more attention, the child’s birthday would thus become a special day. In other words, as families had fewer children, and did not have so much to worry about economically, they could afford to celebrate the children with emotional attachment rather than with practical (e.g. financial) worries. This economically-based view of affection both denies the Judeo-Christian history of valuing children—and celebrating having many—and is also an unfortunate precursor to today’s pro-abortion notion of “wanted” versus “unwanted” children.
Of course, a child’s existence is worthy celebrating in and of itself, regardless of the difficulties: each child’s existence is willed by God Himself! And one can understand loving parents rejoicing over their child’s birth, and having the wish to celebrate it often!
But as we grow older, we ought to be growing out of celebrating our own birthdays. For in this world, we’re already called so often to celebrate ourselves: our accomplishments, our achievements, and with birthdays, simply the fact that we exist. Secular birthday party traditions makes it an entirely self-centered exercise where we seek out accolades and expect gifts and greetings from all and sundry. This makes it quite a paradox when an atheist who doesn’t believe in the soul, and believes our existence is a matter of mere coincidence and probability, finds a birthday (an arbitrary date and time altogether) somehow important!
Whether one is a Christian or not, we all must ask ourselves: are we responsible for our own existence? Did we decide the day we were born? Save for Christ alone, I should think not. How, then, should we observe birthdays?
If we are honest with ourselves, we should realize that our birthdays are not occasions for self-congratulation, but for gratitude toward others: thanks to God, Who made us exist and keeps us in existence; thanks to our mothers who gave birth to us, and to those who raised us; thanks to those who are our family and friends on our earthly pilgrimage journey. If we are to celebrate our birthdays, then it ought to be one of thanksgiving, and especially giving!
And, in fact, there are many other days of our lives that ought to be much more important to us, if only we saw things from the eternal, spiritual view–not the earthly one. Such an idea is suggested even in some pagan histories: certain Egyptian scholars suggest that Pharaoh’s “birthday” might in fact have been the day of his ascension to the throne, that is, the day he would have become a “god” to his people! Of course, we ought not to celebrate Pharaoh’s ascension and faux “godhood.” But we have our own days of great spiritual significance. Pope Francis has often suggested that we treat our baptism day as a birthday. Yet so few people today know their baptism date, much less celebrate it!
But our baptism is perhaps one of the most suitable days to celebrate: on that day we were cleansed from sin, made participants in Christ’s Sonship, our souls opened to the graces preparing us for heaven. Is that not a far more glorious day—more pertinent to our salvation—than our physical entrance into the world? The Church knows this: she offers a plenary indulgence for renewing our baptismal promises on our baptism days—but no indulgence particular to our our birthdays! Furthermore, many priests celebrate their ordination anniversaries rather than birthdays, for ordinations leave marks on the soul—births do not! And for some couples, their sacramental marriage is a far bigger anniversary than either birthday, as (I believe) it ought to be.
Another date in our lives is also of great importance, though we can never celebrate it during our life. The mystery of the Roman Martyrology is understood when one realizes that the word “birthday” refers to a saint’s heavenly birthday, that is, the date upon which one dies. Our hopeful entrance into heaven is the beginning of eternal life—and that is worth celebrating.
A good name is better than precious ointments: and the day of death than the day of one's birth. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)
This is why most saints’ feast days are celebrated on their death days, and why such days are often called natalis (birthday) by Church fathers. For in the end, our life on earth is short and impermanent. A birthday celebration would mean little to us, and be of minimal (if any) benefit, after our death! But our baptism, every other sacrament that marks our soul, and in the end, our day of entry into heaven, are causes for eternal rejoicing, for without these days, we would not enter into eternal joy to begin with!
It is not that birthdays are unimportant; for we humans need visible, tangible reminders of the gift of life given to us by God. However, when celebrating birthdays, we ought to do two things: first, to consider our birthday a day to give gifts and thanks, rather than to receive congratulations; and second, to remember and observe as even more important, the days of grace that will resound in our souls for all time. Such days, and birthdays as well, should be celebrated above all with an eye to the eternal: with prayer, with Mass and the sacraments, and with supreme gratitude toward the Lord, without Whom we never would have been born.
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