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Origins of the Birthday Celebration

Updated on July 20, 2012
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Ever wonder how the tradition of celebrating birthdays came about? For most of us, an upcoming birthday brings thoughts of parties and presents, and being surrounded by all the special people in our lives. We remember parties gone by, most often reliving birthdays celebrating the rites of passage like the 13th where we officially became a teenager. Some of us will give special attention to the 16th birthday, remembering it as the key to the family car. And of course, we can't forget the 21st birthday, since it is the official age at which we may legally make drunken fools of ourselves.

Today we celebrate birthdays as a celebration of life. It's our way of telling our loved ones how happy we are that they are sharing our lives. It seems only natural to have a celebration commemorating the day we were gifted with a new life. However, the origins of today's modern birthday traditions are steeply rooted in ancient pagan rituals.

No one really knows which ancient culture to accredit with the origins of birthday celebrations. In the earliest of ancient times, there were no calendars, making it difficult to mark the passing of time to a specific day. Celebrations were reserved for paying homage to their Gods and Goddesses,who it was believed, could act with benevolence toward the cultures over which they governed. Since many cultures held the belief that their human rulers were descendants of these gods, celebrations also centered around them.

Astronomy was very important to the ancient Egyptians who used it for predicting the Inundation of the Nile, for planning and building great monuments, and for fixing dates of religious festivals. With the perfecting of the calendar through advances in astronomy, it became easier to record and organize the births of individuals. Egyptian, as well as many other ancient cultures, held their rulers as divine descendants of the Gods. Because of this belief, they were very attentive to the placement of constellations, planets, the sun and the moon on the days one was born. Over time, the ancient Babylonian practice of astrology made its way into other cultures.

Since the Egyptians viewed their Pharaohs as gods, they believed their fate could affect an entire society, therefore, great care was taken in examination of their astrological charts. Businesses would close and enormous banquets were prepared for hundreds of servants in celebration of the Pharaoh’s birthday.


The ancient Greeks didn't celebrate personal birthdays preferring to hold celebrations for their Gods. One Goddess by the name of Artemis was the moon Goddess. Once each month, special cakes were brought to her temple, in celebration of her birth. The cakes were round to symbolize the moon and decorated with lighted candles to represent its glowing light.

In his own honor, a Roman emperor would hold extravagant festivals to commemorate his birthday. Over time, the practice spread to other wealthy male nobles.

There were many superstitions relating to the day of one's birth during times of old. Both the Greek and Roman cultures subscribed to the idea that every individual had a protective spirit or daemon who attended his birth and watched over him in life. This spirit had a mystic relation with the god on whose birthday the individual was born.

Another belief held that birthdays were a day where individuals were more susceptible to harm from bad spirits. On this day, in order to keep the bad spirits at bay, the celebrant would be surrounded by friends and family who would shower them with gifts and well-wishing. Noise making was employed as an additional measure for warding off the bad spirits. The working of magical spells was an integral part of living in ancient times. Giving birthday greets was a way of working a spell for protection as further shielding from evil spirits. They believed that the recipient was surrounded by his personal spirits, therefore more exposed to the power of the spell.

It's quite obvious the practice of birthday celebrations is based in paganism. Once the Christian religion formed, followers shunned the rituals. Jews and Christians during the first and second centuries AD regarded the celebrations as a facet of idolatry, condemning the custom. It wasn't until the fourth century the practice began again, becoming common. This change was caused in part to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who upon legalizing the practice of Christianity, also brought many pagan rituals known to the Romans for thousands of years.

Today we don't plan a birthday party with an intention of honoring some long lost pagan God or Goddess. We simply see it as a celebration of life, an opportunity to share good wishes, and a time to reflect on the year just passed as the birthday boy or girl takes another step on the journey of their lives.

If you find this interesting and know someone with an upcoming birthday, why not pass the information on to them by clicking Tweet, Like, or +1?

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Very interesting!

    • Terri Meredith profile image
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      Terri Meredith 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks, I thought so too.

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 5 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      I didn't understand how the links at the end of your post were relevant to birthdays. I thought it was a great idea to research and write about.

    • Terri Meredith profile image
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      Terri Meredith 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      The links are only to provide direction to some other topics I've written about as I have widespread interests. Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate your comment.

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      aqeel 5 years ago

      wish u happy birthday....................:)

    • profile image

      Lewis Hill 5 years ago

      I find it interesting that the incorporation of the term "pagan" was included. Most people only know or refer to the definition of the word as almost derogatory in nature(religiously speaking...) The Webster's definition is - Rural or rustic. Just thought I would share. :)

    • Terri Meredith profile image
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      Terri Meredith 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks for the share! I suppose since I don't see the term "pagan" as something derogatory, I didn't give it a thought. I was using it with the true definition in mind. Interesting how just one chosen word can change how one's mind perceives the information given. Excellent observation on your part.

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      t.man 4 years ago

      its really gud 2 get the origin of this practice . Even if we try 2 put it in a way that is gud . This dose nt change a thing its a pagan practice . True christians shldnt involve themselves in those things

    • Terri Meredith profile image
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      Terri Meredith 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      @t.man: I suppose you might be correct in your view based on your personal understanding of your chosen religion. However, not all

      Christians subscribe to your brand of Christianity, nor do all people subscribe to Christianity at all. There are many religions, many cultures, and many beliefs. That's one of the wonderful things about being an individual...we each get to make our own decisions that we feel are best for ourselves and our journey through this life.

    • profile image

      Jeremy Rawlings 4 years ago

      Wikipaedia says that the word pagan is derived from the Latin word paganus meaning "country dweller" or "rustic". It says pagan is a blanket term typically used to refer to religious traditions which are polytheistic or indigenous.

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      1munchingmomma 3 years ago

      I was researching about the historical roots of birthday celebrations and stumbled upon your site. I found it informative and eye opening! I hope you don't mind but I shared some of the information on my blog and provided a link to your site. :)

    • Terri Meredith profile image
      Author

      Terri Meredith 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I certainly don't mind at all! Thanks a bunch. Glad you found the information useful.

    • profile image

      Michelle Browning 3 years ago

      Would you mind sharing your research sources?

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