Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that it’s a sin to celebrate birthdays because:
- Bible: The Bible only mentions two non-believers’ birthdays where someone was murdered.
- Pagan: They are of pagan origin or rooted in “ancient false religion.”
- Early Christians: They did not celebrate anything other than the annual Lord’s Evening Meal.
- Selfishness: Birthdays make you the focus instead of others.
Is this Correct?
1. What does the Bible say?
“One man judges one day as above another; another judges one day the same as all others; let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” (RNWT) There is neither a Scriptural prohibition nor a requirement regarding the celebration of birthdays. With over 600 detailed rules in the Mosaic Law, birthdays could have been mentioned if they were offensive to God, as they were a common practice in the surrounding nations at that time. So, scripturally speaking, a Christian’s celebrating a birthday should be a non-issue.
However, the overly sensitive conscience of some immature, strict believers will not allow them to enjoy certain celebrations and foods. They may even condemn other Christians for their more liberal minded stance which they fear would lead to licentiousness (Rom 14:10-14). However, a mature Christian will avoid stumbling others or engaging in immoderate conduct (Rom 13:13-14; 14:15-19; 1 Pet 4:3).
Genesis 40 Pharoah’s Birthday
The earliest mention of birthdays was around 3,000 BC. in reference to the birthday of the Pharaohs’ – not their birth into the world, but their “birth” as a god, their coronation date. In the Genesis account there is no hint that it was wrong for Pharaoh to celebrate this birthday of his coronation. Of course, the negative factor was him taking his baker’s life. If the moral of this story was against birthday celebrations, then the account should end with the warning that birthdays are not for followers of God.
Matthew 14 Herod’s Birthday
Some suggest this was a festival to commemorate Herod’s accession. Ancient Romans were the first to celebrate birthdays for the common man, but not women until the twelfth century. Do you think that murder is a common accomplice of the traditional birthday party? The only siesta recorded in the Bible resulted in murder (2 Sam 4:5-7). Should JWs forbid their members from taking afternoon naps? Or consider giving wedding gifts: David was required to supply the foreskins of 200 slain Philistines as a dowry to King Saul (1 Sam 18:27) and Pharaoh killed the inhabitants of Gezer and gave the city as a wedding gift to his daughter (1 Kings 9:16). Is gift giving permissible at a Jehovah’s Witness wedding?
Job 4:1 Job’s sons
Benson’s Commentary, “It is certain the same expression, יומו, his day, means his birth-day, Job 3:1. “The verse,” says Dr. Dodd, “might be rendered, And his sons had a constant custom to make a family feast, every one on his birth-day; and they sent and invited their three sisters.” See also Job 1:4 in NIV and WEB where yôm is rendered as “birthday”. But contrast Keil and Delitzsch Commentary which discounts the translation “birthday”.
“A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born.” Solomon does not forbid celebrating one’s birth any more than he forbids accumulating good oil. The intention of this passage is not an opinion about birthday celebrations, but rather the importance of working on gaining a character of wisdom.
“But the angel said to them: “Have no fear, for, look! I am declaring to you good news of a great joy that all the people will have, because there was born to you today a saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” The angels celebrated the birth of Jesus.
2. Should we avoid everything Pagan?
This mentality of avoiding everything ancient that may have been tainted with paganism would imply that because they did something in the past it is bad.
Egyptians customarily embalmed the dead but Joseph did not automatically react, ‘This is a pagan custom, so we Hebrews must avoid it.’ Rather, he “commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father.” (Gen 49:29–50:3)
Jesus accepted the use of four cups of wine at the Passover which was not outlined in the Bible. Also, as a Jew, he would enjoy the annual holiday of Hanukkah and occasion of Purim which both celebrated Jewish military victories (Est 9:22-23,26-28; John 10:22).
Does the Christian who rejects birthday celebrations also reject the following?
- the pagan-labelled days of the week and months
- wedding rings and cake, bridesmaids, white wedding dresses and bridal flowers
- eye make-up
- certain artwork on money
- neckties which apparently had a military origin – worn by warriors for the Chinese emperor Cheng to indicate rank; some even link the tie to a phallic symbol
- the circus which originated with the ancient Greeks
- covering your mouth to yawn which originated in ancient Rome
- cats and dogs which Egyptians elevated to the status of gods eg. Bastet and Anubis
What is the present and common view?
When discussing funeral customs and use of flowers the Watchtower conceded:
“A custom (or design) might have had a false religious meaning millenniums ago or might have such today in a distant land. But without going into time-consuming investigation, ask yourself: ‘What is the common view where I live?’”
Further, when discussing signs and symbols the WT observed:
“On the other hand, just because idol worshipers at some time or place might use a certain design, that does not automatically mean that true worshipers must always shun it. For instance, figures of palm trees, pomegranates and bulls were incorporated in the design of Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem. (1 Ki. 6:29-35; 7:15-18, 23-25) The fact that other religions might take these natural things that God created and use them as symbols in idol worship did not make it wrong for true worshipers to use them decoratively.”
Using a similar argument, we could reason that the Greeks lit candles and gave gifts as a protection against these ‘dark’ spirits on a “birth” day – but are any birthdays held today in response to a morbid fear of demons?
3.What did the early Christians do?
No one denies that we don’t read of Jewish birthdays in the OT, but this is evidence from silence. Also, it is true that Origen around the year 250 A.D., condemned the raucous Roman birthday celebrations. But he was a sole voice among the early Christians and was speaking out against the manner in which they were celebrated, and not the fact that they were celebrated. Today only the most scrupulous of Christians would continue to link birthday celebrations with pagan customs of yore.
4.Do birthdays boost ego?
“Additionally, birthday celebrations tend to give excessive importance to an individual, no doubt one reason why early Christians shunned them. (Ecclesiastes 7:1) So you will find that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not share in birthday festivities (the parties, singing, gift giving, and so forth).” School and Jehovah’s Witnesses p.18
“There is nothing wrong with giving an individual special attention. If this truly is a reason to avoid a birthday party or celebrations, then it should also apply to graduation parties, retirement parties, wedding anniversaries, or celebrating a good school report. A wedding reception, such as the one attended by Jesus, elevates a newly married couple with as much importance as a birthday party. A baby shower, which is a birthday celebration, puts a mother and child in the spotlight. A Kingdom Hall announcement that an individual is pioneering gives importance to that individual prior to achieving their goal, but this is not considered wrong.” https://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/birthdays.php
Whether or not a Christian celebrates a birthday, he should strive for a clear conscience, love his brothers in Christ – not judging them, and above all glorify God in all activities (1 Cor 10:31).
The Bible says to “rejoice in the day the Lord has made.” Each new day should be celebration of God given life (Ps 118:24; Eccles 8:5 TLV).
Let’s return to our introductory scripture in Romans 14 but from the Message Bible:
“Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience… None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.” (Rom 14:5,8-9)