Birthdays: a Wish for the Gods
Birthdays are celebrated to remember personal achievements, show appreciation to those we love and care for, and to simply acknowledge our existence. Although lives are measured by the ceaseless passing of time, birthdays are a time to be remembered. That is how birthdays are defined in America today. The single day that all people have to mark a time in history, celebrate youth or adulthood, highlight milestones, rites of passage, and feel recognized; it is a celebration of life. They almost always consist of a sugary cake, giving gifts, and the strange tradition of making a wish before blowing out the candles. The meaning behind these traditions leads back to ancient civilizations, when man looked the stars for answers. Birthdays have changed significantly throughout the years in respect to their astrological, religious, mythological, and pagan origins, and they have unknowingly become a ritualistic, yearly tradition in American culture.The earliest record of birthdays originates from the Old Testament, in the Book of Genesis, where they mention the coronation day, or birthday, pharaohs (Genesis 40:20).
Ancient Egyptians believed that the day a pharaoh was coronated, they were born again into a god, and it was celebrated as their birthday. Egyptians would also build monuments that would coincide with the alignment of the sun on the day they were born. Respected anthropologists, Giulio Magli and Luisa Ferro, authors of “The Astronomical Orientation of the Urban Plan of Alexandria,” published an article in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, that provided evidence suggesting that in 331 BC, Egyptians built the city of Alexandria to align with the rising sun as it would have appeared on Alexander the Great’s birthday (1). These findings further enforce the significance of birthdays to Egyptians and how they correlated with their religious beliefs. Ancient Greece was also greatly influenced by Egyptian religious traditions which manifested into their own birthday beliefs. For example, Greek mythology bases their beliefs on many gods similar to those of Egyptians and they are strongly linked to their birth and alignment with the stars. According to the book The Lore of Birthdays, Ralph and Adelin Linton, who are known for their influence on the development of cultural anthropology, claim that Greeks believed everyone had a “protective spirit or daemon” who coincided with the god for the month on which they were born (20). These beliefs are still relatively practiced today through horoscopes and astrology and helped popularize the significance of a birthday.
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Ranph and Adelin Linton also state that Greeks celebrated the goddess of hunt, Artemis, with feasts and dancing, and they would make her offerings of honey cakes lit with candles (21). These historical revelations suggest that our present tradition of celebrating birthdays with a cake and candles, may have evolved from the Greek adoration of Artemis. Furthermore, the idea of making a wish before blowing out the candles is also relevant to Greek mythology because of their belief that the smoke would carry their prayers up to their gods after blowing them out (20). The giving of birthday gifts is also a custom associated with their traditions by the offerings of sacrifices to their gods on their birthdays (20). These Greek religious beliefs marked the beginning of the spread of birthday rituals that are still performed in present day birthday traditions. The article titled, “Reformation,” presented in the Encyclopædia Britannica, explains how beliefs spread through Roman culture and influenced the initiation of birthday celebrations for royalty and respected figures in their society, as opposed to gods (Britannica). This was a major turning point that started changing people’s perspective on birthdays from a godly status to a social status within communities. Although birthdays were common within communities, Romans still partook in major events that embodies the worship of gods. According to Michael Speildel, the renounced author of the book Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God, Romans celebrated the birth of the sun god, Mithra, in a festival called Saturnalia, which takes place during the winter solstice (23). Due to its pagan origin, this celebration caused many conflicts in the 6th century with the Roman Church (Britannica). To counteract this prohibited pagan tradition, Christians developed their own birthday celebration by proclaiming the birth of Jesus to coincide with Saturnalia.
The inadvertent acceptance of birthday celebrations by the Roman Church made birthdays more socially acceptable and popularized the tradition. Birthdays no longer have the same religious and astrological significance because people no longer look to the stars for answers. In the early years of ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek era, calendars and time keeping were an advancement under development. Civilizations relied on the stars to predict the time, seasons, and geographical direction, which ensured their survival. Their fixation on the stars to predict the future brought about the worship of sun gods and mythical stories from constellations. The idea of a birthday was originally intended to commemorate the gods for aiding their survival, in ritualistic celebrations during the changing of seasons. Birthdays signified a time to worship, to make offerings to the gods in hopes of a plentiful harvest, and to pray and honor the stars for their guidance and wisdom. The rise of Christianity in the 9th century eventually eradicated pagan polytheistic religions, leaving only traces of their rituals, which are still unknowingly practiced today.In America today, birthdays symbolize a day of individual recognition by the coming of age into adulthood, religious rites of passage, milestones in life, remembrance of respected figures, or showing appreciation to family and friends.
The Jewish religion celebrates the coming of age into adulthood with bar mitzvahs symbolizing a rite of passage in their culture. Hispanic families celebrate Quinceaneras to mark the transition into adulthood when a girl turns 15, as opposed to the American Sweet Sixteen tradition, which is celebrated when a girl turns 16. Historic birthdays are also recognized in remembrance of respected figures whose accomplishments have impacted society. For example, Martin Luther King’s birthday is considered a national holiday in honor of his achievements. More commonly, children’s birthdays are recognized to show personal attention, encourage confidence, and highlight milestones in development. Birthdays celebrate the many milestones of life and is a time where people can stop and acknowledge their achievements. When comparing the significance of modern birthday traditions to the its historic origins, the meaning has evolved from a celebration to praise the gods, to a celebration of personal acknowledgements in life. When put into perspective, ancient civilizations celebrated birthdays of stellar gods in recognition of the changing seasons that brought them life. Today, birthdays are celebrated to recognize changes in stages life. Their religious beliefs have been long forgotten and are now only viewed from a historical standpoint. What did remain were aspects of their rituals. People still celebrate the occasion with cake, light candles and make a wish, Carbo 5oblivious to whom the wish is for, followed with gifts. The true origin of birthdays began as a tribute to the stars, a prayer with a candle leading up to the gods. People unknowingly partake in these traditions year after year, not knowing its true significance.