It is customary today to celebrate a living person’s birthday. But if one Western tradition had prevailed, we’d be observing annual postmortem celebrations of the death day, once a more significant event.
Many of our birthday customs have switched one hundred eighty degrees from what they were in the past. Children’s birthdays were never observed, nor were those of women. And the decorated birthday cake, briefly a Greek tradition, went unbaked for centuries—though it reappeared to be topped with candles and greeted with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You.”
How did we arrive by our many birthday customs?
In Egypt, and later in Babylonia, dates of birth were recorded and celebrated for male children of royalty. Birthday fetes were unheard of for the lower classes, and for women of almost any rank other than queen; only a king, queen, or high-ranking nobleman even recognised the day he or she was born, let alone commemorated it annually.
The first birthday celebrations in recorded history, around 3000 B.C., were those of the early pharaohs, kings of Egypt. The practice began after Menes united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms. Celebrations were elaborate household feasts in which servants, slaves, and freedmen took part; often prisoners were released from the royal jails. Two ancient female birthdays are documented. From Plutarch, the first-century Greek biographer and essayist, we know that Cleopatra IV , the last member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty to rule Egypt, threw an immense birthday celebration for her lover, Mark Antony, at which the invited guests were themselves lavished with royal gifts. An earlier Egyptian queen, Cleopatra II, who incestuously married her brother Ptolemy and had a son by him, received from her husband one of the most macabre birthday presents in history: the slaughtered and dismembered body of their son.
The Greeks adopted the Egyptian idea of birthday celebrations, and from the Persians, renowned among ancient confectioners, they added the custom of a sweet birthday cake as hallmark of the occasion. The writer Philochorus tells us that worshipers of Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt, celebrated her birthday on the sixth day of every month by baking a large cake of flour and honey. There is evidence suggesting that Artemis’s cake might actually have been topped with lighted candles, since candles signified moonlight, the goddess’s earthward radiance. Birthdays of Greek deities were celebrated monthly, each god hailed with twelve fetes a year. At the other extreme, birthdays of mortal women and children were considered too unimportant to observe. But when the birthday of the man of the house arrived, no banquet was deemed too lavish. The Greeks called these festivities for living males Genethlia, and the annual celebrations continued for years after a man’s death, with the postmortem observances known as Genesia.
The Romans added a new twist to birthday celebrations. Before the dawn of the Christian era, the Roman senate inaugurated the custom (still practiced today) of making the birthdays of important statesmen national holidays. In 44 B.C., the senate passed a resolution making the assassinated Caesar’s birthday an annual observance—highlighted by a public parade, a circus performance, gladiatorial combats, an evening banquet, and a theatrical presentation of a dramatic play. With the rise of Christianity, the tradition of celebrating birthdays ceased altogether. To the early followers of Christ, who were oppressed, persecuted, and martyred by the Jews and the pagans—and who believed that infants entered this world with the original sin of Adam condemning their souls—the world was a harsh, cruel place. There was no reason to celebrate one’s birth. But since death was the true deliverance, the passage to eternal paradise, every person’s death day merited prayerful observance.
Contrary to popular belief, it was the death days and not the birthdays of saints that were celebrated and became their “feast days.” Church historians interpret many early Christian references to “birthdays” as passage or birth into the afterlife. “A birthday of a saint,” clarified the early Church apologist Peter Chrysologus, “is not that in which they are born in the flesh, but that in which they are born from earth into heaven, from labour to rest.”
There was a further reason why early church fathers preached against celebrating birthdays: They considered the festivities, borrowed from the Egyptians and the Greeks, as relics of pagan practices. In A.D. 245, when a group of early Christian historians attempted to pinpoint the exact date of Christ’s birth, the Catholic Church ruled the undertaking sacrilegious, proclaiming that it would be sinful to observe the birthday of Christ “as though He were a King Pharaoh.” In the fourth century, though, the Church began to alter its attitude toward birthday celebrations— and it also commenced serious discussions to settle the date of Christ’s birth. The result, of course, marked the beginning of the tradition of celebrating Christmas. was with the celebration of Christ’s nativity that the Western world returned to the celebration of birthdays. By the twelfth century, parish churches throughout Europe were recording the birth dates of women and children, and families were observing the dates with annual celebrations. Around this time, the birthday cake reemerged, now topped with candles.