Congratulations on another successful trip around the sun: Why do we celebrate birthdays?

As we get ever closer to the guillotine of 30 hanging over our youth ready to drop and condemn us entirely to adulthood and “maturity,” the question arose – where do our birthday celebrations come from?

Like many of our celebrations, birthdays originated from pagan roots. Early Christians did not celebrate birthdays and Jewish tradition measured birthdays for milestones, but did not celebrate birthdays themselves as it was viewed as a form of self-worship.

In the beginning…

There were no birthdays. Why? Well, before mankind developed calendars, they did not have a method of tracking dates to determine birthdays or milestone ages.

According to bible scholars, the earliest mention of a birthday was around 3000 B.C. and refers to Pharaoh’s “birthday.” (Genesis 40:20). However, this was not the day of his birth. This “birthday” refers to a Pharaoh being crowed and receiving the throne. In ancient Egyptian culture, when a Pharaoh was crowned, the Pharaoh was transformed from a man into a god. Therefore, the “birthday” was a celebration of their transformation into a god.

This is … a birthday

The ancient Greeks celebrated a person’s physical birth; however, this also had spiritual roots. The Greeks believed that a spirit was present at your birth. That spirit watched over you and some sort of mystical connection to the god that shared your birthday.

Many of our traditions, such as candles and birthday gifts, also relate to pagan culture and beliefs. Blowing out candles was believed to protect against evil spirits that came around on days of major change, like birthdays.

The Common Man

The Romans were the first to celebrate the birth of common men. Regular Roman citizens celebrated their birthdays with family and friends, while famous Romans had public holidays celebrating their birthdays. Any Roman man that turned 50 would celebrate their birthday with a special cake. Female birthdays were not celebrated until the 12 century.


Early Christians and Jews believed that birthday celebrations were worshiping either pagan gods or oneself, both of which were agains their religious views. In the 4th century, Christians adopted “Saturnalia” – the roman festival worshiping Saturn in mid to late December – and celebrated it as the birth of Jesus. This was largely to transform the pagan holiday to a Christian one and to convert followers.

Let them eat cake

Happy 30th Birthday Taylor

We can thank the German bakers in the 18th century for modern birthday cakes. For children they would put a candle in a pastry for every year they had been alive plus one “to grow on” in hopes of the child living one more year. Later, with the Industrial Revolution, baked items became more affordable and more people could celebrate birthdays with cake and candles.

Today, our birthday celebrations have largely abandoned its roots of worshiping pagan gods and defending against evil spirits, but they continue to be a fun celebration of surviving another trip around the sun.

Do you or your family have any fun birthday traditions? Let us know in the comments below.

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