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Origins of the Birthday Celebration
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.
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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.
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