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9/1/92 QUESTIONS FROM READERS
Questions From Readers
Do Jehovah's Witnesses avoid celebrating birthdays because the practice had some religious meaning in ancient times?
Celebrating birthdays is rooted in superstition and false religion, but that is not the sole or prime reason why Jehovah's Witnesses avoid the practice.
Some customs that were once religious in nature no longer are in many places. For example, the wedding ring once had religious significance, but in most places today, it no longer does. Hence, many true Christians accept the local custom of wearing a wedding ring to give evidence that a person is married. In such matters, what generally is influential is whether a practice is now linked to false religion.-See "Questions From Readers" in The Watchtower of January 15, 1972, and October 15, 1991.
There is no denying, though, that numerous reference works reveal the superstitious and religious antecedents of celebrating birthdays. The Encyclopedia Americana (1991 edition) notes: "The ancient world of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Persia celebrated the birthdays of gods, kings, and nobles." It says that the Romans observed the birth of Artemis and the day of Apollo. In contrast, "although the ancient Israelis kept records of the ages of their male citizens, there is no evidence that they had any festivities on the anniversary of the birth date."
Other reference works go into considerable detail about the origin of birthday celebrations: 'Birthday parties began years ago in Europe. People believed in good and evil spirits, sometimes called good and evil fairies. Everyone was afraid of these spirits, that they would cause harm to the birthday celebrant, and so he was surrounded by friends and relatives whose good wishes, and very presence, would protect him against the unknown dangers that the birthday held. Giving gifts brought even greater protection. Eating together provided a further safeguard and helped to bring the blessings of the good spirits. So the birthday party was originally intended to make a person safe from evil and to insure a good year to come.'-Birthday Parties Around the World, 1967.
The book explains, too, the origin of many birthday customs. For example: "The reason [for using candles] goes back to the early Greeks and Romans who thought that tapers or candles had magical qualities. They would offer prayers and make wishes to be carried up to the gods by the flames of candles. The gods would then send down their blessings and perhaps answer the prayers." Other such background information is collected on pages 69 and 70 of Reasoning From the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
As mentioned, however, more is involved in this question than whether celebrating birthdays was or still is religious. The Bible brings up the matter of birthdays, and mature Christians wisely are sensitive to any indications it gives.
God's servants of old noted when individuals were born, which allowed them to figure ages. We read: "Noah got to be five hundred years old. After that Noah became father to Shem, Ham and Japheth." "In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, . . . all the springs of the vast watery deep were broken open."-Genesis 5:32; 7:11; 11:10-26.
As even Jesus mentioned, among God's people childbirth was a blessed, happy event. (Luke 1:57, 58; 2:9-14; John 16:21) Yet, Jehovah's people did not memorialize the date of birth; they kept other anniversaries but not birthdays. (John 10:22, 23) Encyclopaedia Judaica says: "The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual." Customs and Traditions of Israel observes: "The celebration of birthdays has been borrowed from the practices of other nations, as no mention is made of this custom among Jews either in The Bible, Talmud, or writings of the later Sages. In fact, it was an ancient Egyptian custom."
That Egyptian connection is clear from a birthday celebration related in the Bible, one that true worshipers were not observing. It was the birthday feast of the Pharaoh who ruled while Joseph was in an Egyptian prison. Some of those pagans may have been happy over the feast, yet the birthday was linked to the beheading of the chief of Pharaoh's bakers.-Genesis 40:1-22.
A similar unfavorable light is shed on the other birthday celebration described in the Scriptures-that of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. This birthday celebration is hardly presented in the Bible as just innocent festivity. Rather, it occasioned the beheading of John the Baptizer. Then, "his disciples came up and removed the corpse and buried him and came and reported to Jesus," who 'withdrew from there into a lonely place for isolation.' (Matthew 14:6-13) Do you imagine that those disciples or Jesus felt drawn to the practice of birthday celebrations?
Given the known origin of celebrating birthdays, and more important, the unfavorable light in which they are presented in the Bible, Jehovah's Witnesses have ample reason to abstain from the practice. They do not need to follow this worldly custom, for they can and do have happy meals any time during the year. Their gift giving is not obligatory or under the pressure of a party; it is spontaneous sharing of gifts at any time out of generosity and genuine affection.-Proverbs 17:8; Ecclesiastes 2:24; Luke 6:38; Acts 9:36, 39; 1 Corinthians 16:2, 3.