I'm indebted to others on this board for much of this information which has been both condensed and enlarged.
As it seems that no one can be absolutely sure whether the Jews celebrated birthdays or not we could start by;
Assuming they did NOT and why.
Assuming they DID NOT celebrate birthdays what could be the reason? Was it a cultural or religious one? If a cultural one then that would not be a reason for us not to celebrate especially as we live in a different culture. For instance Boxing Day is celebrated in Canada but not in the USA. It’s simply that Canadians celebrate Boxing Day, Americans don't. Should someone conclude then that Americans are opposed to Boxing Day, that they have a religious objection to it? No, it's simply not a part of their culture. What basis is there for concluding that the Bible characters avoided birthdays for religious reasons?
Christmas is celebrated in England but hardly at all in Scotland (new year’s day is their big day). It seems a foregone conclusion that we will do things today that Jesus didn't do. We speak a different language, live in a different culture, and exist in a two thousand year removed world from Jesus and the apostles. However, if it was for a religious reason there is no evidence for it as it is simply nowhere mentioned.
Assuming they DID, but it was just never mentioned and why.
Assuming they DID and most other cultures also did it would simply be normal part of life and not warrant mentioning just as many other normal insignificant activities would not warrant a mention although Job does appear to allude to them in Job. In the book of Job it says that each son held a party on "HIS DAY" (Job 1:4) whereas it says Job called down evil on "HIS DAY". In this case it is not unreasonable to assume that people did celebrate their birthday.
People have celebrated milestone events in life (like birthdays and wedding anniversaries) throughout time, regardless of what religion they purported to follow (or lack thereof). It is a common and human practice. It could be viewed as simply human, not intrinsically pagan, just like the giving of gifts is human (whether for a special occasion or none in particular).
Some think that as far as one can tell birthdays have been with the whole human race for as long as one can remember. God never forbade them. Eating pork and not washing your hands before meals and even certain hairstyles were proscribed, yes, but not birthdays.
The giving of gifts and marking of milestones or achievements in life is not condemned in the bible in the slightest.
It’s would be rather strange that all those births recorded from Adam to Christ and yet no one celebrated the day they came into the world? The Bible talks about what a wonderful thing having children is and yet some say we then can't celebrate the day they come into our lives? It could just be that it was so common for people to celebrate birthdays that the Bible writers didn't think they had to even mention it. The Israelites had so many celebrations anyway...the harvest, the festival of booths, Passover, first fruits, etc., it was just another one.
Birthdays - Disapproved by God?
Since the Society disallows baptism for those that are currently celebrating birthdays, it is considered an important matter. Does the Bible actually support this position? Following are 9 points used to argue against celebrating birthdays, and why those lines of reasoning are in question. If it can be shown that birthday celebrations are not condemned by the Bible, would it not be ‘going beyond what is written’ to forbid them? (1 Cor. 4:6)
1. There are only 2 birthday celebrations mentioned in the Bible. Both were for wicked people, and murder took place at both of them. (Gen 40:20; Mark 6:21; Matt 14:6) Pharaoh also let the cup bearer live on that day. It was kind of a gift, maybe because Pharaoh was happy because it was his birthday. Instead of executing them BOTH, which might have been normal, he executed only one of them. The other man was set free although presumably they both were guilty of something, broke a law against Pharaoh or committed a crime. Also, Joseph was released so on this day justice was done so that makes it a good day. But if you still take the view that evil was committed on that day then surely it was pharaoh who was evil not the day it occurred on? To say the day itself was evil simply because many centuries later someone else was co-incidentally executed on a kings birthday is surely succumbing to belief in superstition. (something that Americans are noted for e.g. the USA is almost unique in having no building or ships built or used for US tourists has a 13 th floor or a 13th deck.). Was there ever a day in history on which something bad did not happen to someone?
And not forgetting that pagans don’t have the exclusivity to killing, King David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered. Also suppose the two occasions had not been birthdays but instead wedding feasts. Would we then refuse to attend or partake in weddings or their anniversaries?
Dogs are mentioned something like 50 times in the Bible, ALWAYS associated with bad or unclean things, dogs are never mentioned in a positive light. Since birthdays are mentioned only twice, that makes dogs 25 times worse than birthdays, yet dog ownership isn't condemned.
Jezebel and apostate Israel (both guilty of murder) are the only individuals in the Bible said to use eye paint, making themselves beautiful. (2Kings 9:30; Jer 4:30) The same reasoning that forbids birthdays should also forbid eye makeup, but it doesn’t.
Also the birthday was mentioned only in passing and is not actually relevant to what the Bible is actually talking about in those verses.
2. There is no record that the Jews or 1st century Christians celebrated their birthdays
There is also no record that they held bridal showers, baby showers, or called their houses of worship "Kingdom Halls". The fact that they did not perform a certain act doesn’t in itself preclude our doing so.
3. The date of Jesus birth is not recorded in the Bible. If we were expected to celebrate birthdays, surely this would be the most important birthday of all.
As shown in point 2, if it is assumed the Jews did not celebrate birthdays, it is not surprising that Jesus continued that custom. But the point is not to establish whether we should celebrate birthdays ("Is it a command?") but to determine if we should not do so ("Is it forbidden?") There is no record that Mary received a baby shower for Jesus or any of her other children, but that has not caused the Society to forbid us from hosting such events.
4. Birthdays are of Pagan origin, rooted in astrology and showing undue prominence to ruling monarchs.
Many things originated with people that did not serve God. This is to be expected, since down through history most people have not followed the path of true worship of God. Is it necessary to reject all things that did not originate with Gods people?
The use of eye makeup is tied to false beliefs about protection from evil spirits. Should it be forbidden?
The practice of dressing the bride and bride’s maids and the groom and his attendants in similar clothing has pagan origins. Should it be forbidden?
The practice of cremating a body rather than burying it has pagan roots. Is this practice disapproved by God?
Also consider the pagan origins of the calendar, the names of the planets, wedding rings, wedding veils, wind chimes, pinatas, etc and the use of perfume. None of these are forbidden, despite their pagan origins.Some have mentioned that they felt the rule for determining if a custom with pagan origins was still acceptable was if the custom was accepted by the world in general (such as the names of the days of the week) and if continuing in the custom did not violate any of Gods laws from the Bible. By that measure, makeup, cremation, and birthdays would all be acceptable.
We also need to determine if it is the practices associated with birthdays or the concept itself of marking or remembering a birth date that is sinful. It has to be either one or both, which is it?
If it is the practices that are sinful then what if I were to invent completely original practices as a way of celebrating that were not associated with any pagan source? What if I don't have a cake and candles, if there are no prettily wrapped gifts for the person to open...BUT I have made their favorite dinner (per their choice) and we open a nice bottle of wine (not an every night occasion) and give the person an "I love you" card. Is it now acceptable to celebrate a birthday? If not, then why not?
If it is the actual concept, the idea itself of marking or remembering a birthday that is sinful then just thinking about a birthday would be sinful, as Jesus said just thinking about a sin (a man keeps looking at a woman) would be sinful. So one would need to pray for forgiveness whenever one thought about a birthday, anyone’s birthday. Is that reasonable, especially as the WTS prohibition is based on one particular interpretation and not on any written command?
Unless there's a specific statement claiming that birthdays are sinful then it has no basis in fact and is therefore merely an interpretation of what the text of the Bible says. To observe that interpretations of scriptural texts have changed and even reversed several times over the year’s gives one cause to seriously examine the basis of such interpretations. God said "thou shalt not steal", "thou shalt not murder" and made numerous other prohibitions. These and other orders were made clear in the text of the Bible. Because God makes His desires and directions known clearly, He doesn't hide things in the text of the Bible and hope that somehow, all of us mere humans will manage to dig them out and follow such encrypted commands. Are there other hidden commands and if so how many? What if we never find them all? Are we rejected by God because we couldn't find that one encoded command that was oh-so-important but yet we somehow overlooked?
Is it permissible to simply acknowledge a birthday but not actually celebrate it? If it is, then what actually makes the difference between acknowledging the date and celebrating it? Where does one draw the line?
We also need to specify what we mean by a pagan practice. The pagans used burnt offerings, music and dancing in their worship but that didn’t stop the Jews from also using them. Perhaps one defines a pagan practice by who thought or practiced it first ie pagans. That would mean that if they thought of something first it would forever be branded a pagan practice and could never be used by Christians even long after the pagans had stopped using it such as for example wedding rings. Are weddings rings proscribed? No they are not, but why not?
Just because something used to be pagan doesn't mean that it still is, things lose and change their meaning all the time just as the meanings of words themselves change over time. Wind chimes are an example, they were once used to ward off evil spirits, but now, they’re used as a decoration because they're attractive and sound pleasant. Are wind chimes forbidden? No, but why not?
If the original pagan meanings have disappeared or changed why can’t what was once pagan now be part of Christian life?
5. Jeremiah 10:1-3 warns us not to ‘adopt the customs of the heathens’
The fact that another nation did something does not in and of itself make it wrong. The context of these verses (and similar ones throughout the Bible) make it clear that it is the unclean, scripturally disapproved customs that are in question (e.g. child sacrifice). As an example, the heathens may have known of a certain construction technique that worked well with the raw materials at hand in the land of Canaan. The Israelites would not have thought it improper to adopt those building methods, since they did not conflict with Gods laws.
6. Birthdays direct undue prominence to one person, ("some say it is a form of creature worship"), elevating that one improperly
A wedding feast, such as the one attended by Jesus, would have the same elevating effect on the newly married couple. A baby shower puts the new mother and her child in the spotlight. Even a simple announcement at the Kingdom Hall that a certain individual is pioneering that month tends to draw prominence to that one. But this is not considered wrong under any of these other circumstances. Why then single out birthdays?
Judges 11:40 and 1 Samuel 18:6, 7 shows it's not wrong to honour people. Here are two examples, of people who served God, who where honoured and celebrated.
7. Solomon stated at Ecclesiastes 7:1-4 that ‘the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth’.
Solomon said a name is better than good oil, but this does not forbid the accumulating of oil. He said being sad is better than being happy, but this doesn’t forbid being happy. The entire run of verses makes the point that there is a need to spend some time seriously working on one’s character, becoming a genuinely good person. A life spent in sheer frivolity would not result in a good name, but enduring the pain and sadness, along with the comforts and joys, leads to a full life. Solomon was not expressing an opinion about birthday celebrations any more than he was forbidding obtaining good oil, or laughing.
Baby showers are held to celebrate the birth of a baby. Would these not also violate any supposed "rule" of Solomon? While it may be true that the shower provides items for the family, the fact is that the reason the shower is held is because a child was born.
8. We have no need to celebrate birthdays. We can give gifts all year long, there is no need to wait for a certain day
While that’s true, the point is to determine if such celebrations are displeasing to God. For instance, there is no real need to drink caffeinated drinks such as coffee or tea, but it isn’t forbidden. We wouldn’t use that same logic to try to forbid any other unnecessary aspects of our lives (pet ownership, home decorating, drinking alcohol), so why would we single out birthdays?
9. People originally celebrated birthdays because of their beliefs.
What people used to believe hundreds or thousands of years ago has no relevance today religious or not. People used to believe the earth was flat so you could fall of the edge but we wouldn’t let that stop us from undertaking a round the world cruise. People used to believe that witches came back as black cats or even that a black cat was the Devil himself but that would not now stop us from having them as pets.
According to the Awake 2003 pinatas had a pagan ritualistic beginning but went on state that its origins are not important but rather how people view the custom today that counts.
If this reasoning if viewed as correct then to be consistent the same reasoning must be applied to birthdays.Aren’t there more important things to be concerned with such as displaying kindness and being honest in all our dealings rather than making mountains out of mole-hills? Jesus warned against those "
who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" Paul had a somewhat enlightened view of such matters Romans 14:5 "one man esteems one day a better than another,.....let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind." Col 2:16 "let no one pass judgment on you in question of food or drink or with regard to a festival or new moon or Sabbath". Nothing in the context indicates that Paul was restricting his remarks to just Jewish feast days. Also mentioned in the same context as a similar "conscience matter" was the eating of meat sacrificed to pagan idols. So the context does allow for pagan things being included in the discussion. The fact that a certain festival may have some pagan roots would not preclude it from being celebrated "to the Lord" (verse 6).
One mother realistically stated about her daughter;"When her birthday comes around I can't help but remember all that transpired on the day she was born, give thanks for how she has enriched my life every day since then, and I want to celebrate. All that love and joy and gratitude I feel internally just longs to be expressed externally. I'm pretty sure pagans aren't the only folks to be glad they were born and glad their loved ones were born and feel comfortable showing it. I know that in my family (5 generations' worth of JWs now) even many of them can't let that date slide by completely unacknowledged. Why should they?"
"If the creator really cared about birthdays, if it actually meant anything to him, a custom that was widespread if not universal everywhere you'd think he would have made it clear. You know, something like, "Oh yeah, and don't celebrate your birthdays." I mean, he certainly made it clear how he feels about murder, adultery, theft, and so on. Do you really think God was like, "Okay, let's see...I made myself pretty clear about most of the stuff that irks me. But you know, it's boring to tell them everything straight up. Why don't I make some secret no-no's and hide them in a couple stories about 1000 pages apart. Yeah. That'll be cool."