When did people start celebrating birthdays?


? ? ?

Dear Helena,

The earliest recorded birthday party in Western annals appears in Genesis in the Old Testament, as the Egyptian pharaoh whom Joseph served is described having one to mark his. Many polytheistic civilizations marked birthdays in conjunction with astrology, in hopes of using that to predict their future destinies, although celebrating birthdays was usually reserved for those potentates who could afford it. Judaism, in contrast, never mentions anyone’s birthday, although it does mark one’s 13th with the rite of passage of a bar or bat mitzvah, since at that age they make the transition to maturity and are expected to understand and take up all the faith and attendant responsibilities of a Jewish adult. Early Christianity had an equally hard time accepting the whole concept of a birthday, regarding astrology as a pagan practice and an individual birthday as a celebration of ego, the exact opposite of the attitude they sought to encourage (see typical diatribe below).


Less studied are the origins of birthday celebrations on the other side of the world, but for thousands of years the Chinese mark birthdays, starting from the first year of survival, as a mark of how long one has survived and hopes of longevity ahead. Besides matching the year with their own astrological calendar (based on 12 years rather than 12 months), the Chinese traditionally celebrate birthdays with noodles, the longer a strand of which one can get in one’s mouth with a single intake representing long life to come. How much of a celebration of individual ego this is among a people who traditionally think of family as the minimum of other people about whom one should be concerned is a matter better left to their own philosophers than those pondering it in the West.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History


Don’t miss the next Ask Mr. History question! To receive notification whenever any new item is published on HistoryNet, just scroll down the column on the right and sign up for our RSS feed.