The Birthday Box
How often do we take for granted the gifts from God in our daily lives? Do we presume that our birthdays, Christmases, Easters and other holidays will be abundant with food, drink, gifts – family, friends or community? Many of us are blessed with these events occurring in our lives; we simply expect them to happen. Sometimes, we might even wish we did not have to partake, what with all the demands and stress that are part of living today in this postmodern global world. Consider what our lives might be like if we never celebrate anything. That our lives are a virtual wasteland as far as family or community celebrations are concerned. This is the experience of many residents at SH. Broken homes, disrupted families, abandonment, abuse – these conditions make celebrations hard to happen.
Apparently in SH’s past history birthday celebrations occurred. Currently, such celebrations take place once a month. Last Saturday, L announces that “we are celebrating S’s birthday today.” “Okay,” says I, here we go!” L and I have conversations, share ideas, and now the energy arises together! S selects the cake and icing flavors; L bakes the cake. The SH community rallies with cake, card and candles to honor her on her special day, her Birthday. The card is signed; “Happy Birthday” is sung. All present take the time to enjoy cake and ice cream with S as she reads the messages on the card and smiles after studying each greeting or wish. Plus, we have a picture that she asks to be posted on her Facebook.
Okay, birthdays may be all about the “I” in us. As Christians our focus tends to be away from ourselves, in service to God and humankind. Why would we want to promote the “I” in us? What does our Christian heritage say about birthday celebrations? What are the cultural roots of acknowledging birthdays? What contemporary psychological aspects deserve consideration? These questions peak my curiosity and stimulate an exploration of the birthday celebration tradition and to affirm the relationship between God’s love and celebration birthdays.
Egyptians started the party. When pharaohs were crowned in ancient Egypt they were considered to have transformed into gods. This divine promotion made their coronation date much more important than their birth into the world. Scholars have pointed to the Bible’s reference of a Pharaoh’s birthday as the earliest known mention of a birthday celebration (around 3,000 B.C.E.), but Egyptologist Dr. James Hoffmeier believes this is referencing the subject’s coronation date, since that would have been the Pharaoh’s “birth” as a god.
Greeks added the candles to the cakes. The Greeks offered moon-shaped cakes to Artemis as a form of tribute to the lunar goddess. To recreate the radiance of the moon and her perceived beauty, Greeks lighted candles and put them on cakes for a glowing effect. The Greeks most likely took the idea of birthday celebration from the Egyptians, since just like the celebration of the pharaohs as “gods,” the Greeks were celebrating their gods and goddesses.
Ancient Romans were the first to celebrate birthdays for the common man (but just the men).The prevailing opinion seems to be that the Romans were the first civilization to celebrate birthdays for non-religious figures. Romans would celebrate birthdays for friends and families, while the government created public holidays to observe the birthdays of more famous citizens. Those celebrating a 50th birthday party would receive a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese. All of this said, female birthdays still were not celebrated until around the 12th century.
Christians initially considered birthdays to be a pagan ritual. Due to its belief that humans are born with “original sin” and the fact that early birthdays were tied to “pagan” gods, the Christian Church considered birthday celebrations evil for the first few hundred years of its existence. Around the 4th century, Christians changed their minds and began to celebrate the birthday of Jesus as the holiday of Christmas. This new celebration was accepted into the church partly in hopes of recruiting those already celebrating the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.
Contemporary birthday cakes were invented by German bakers. Although the general idea of celebrating birthdays had already started taking off around the world — like in China, where a child’s first birthday was specifically honored — Kinderfeste, which came out of late 18th century Germany, is the closest prerequisite to the contemporary birthday party. This celebration was held for German children, or “kinder,” and involved both birthday cake and candles. Kids got one candle for each year they’d been alive, plus another to symbolize the hope of living for at least one more year. Blowing out the candles and making a wish was also a part of these celebrations.
The power of positive psychology is real. Positive Psychology emerged at the beginning of the new millennium as a movement within psychology aimed at enhancing human strengths and optimal human functioning. This emerging area of scholarship, scientific research, and application has inspired leading scholars and practitioners from across the globe to rethink the fundamental nature of how we live, work, and educate; of our health and well-being; of how to design and lead positive institutions; and how to develop positive public policies. Data show that children from broken homes are five times more vulnerable toward mental health challenges as adults. Teaching people how to be happy and lead productive lives starts with surrounding them with positive people. Learning to celebrate each other’s special moments in community fortifies people for continued growth and development.
I conclude that celebrating one’s birthday is a good time to reflect on God’s love. We are each special, unique and precious in God’s eyes; “for you, created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). Consider that the Exodus (Passover and Feast of the Unleavened Bread) was an annual celebration of the birthday of the Jewish nation. Pentecost or Easter perhaps could be considered an annual celebration of the same for the Christian church, but I tend to think that Sunday is the weekly celebration of this. Yet each of the commemorative dates is truly a celebration with a focus on what God has done. Every annual milestone God enables us to attain, personally or as the church, is equally an opportunity for the same.
How might this practice continue at SH for each resident moving forward? Perhaps through the help of the “Birthday Box”. Right now it contains cards, candles and decorative icing. The idea is that box will be filled with cake mixes, icings and some simple gifts so that everyone can be recognized on their special day throughout the year. Birthdays will be a rallying point that brings people together to honor, a brother or a sister. Would it not be wonderful if churches would take on supporting a year’s operation of The Birthday Box at SH?
“O God, our times are in your hand: Look with favor, we pray, on your servant S as she begins another year. Grant that she may grow in wisdom and grace, and strengthen her trust in your goodness all the days of her life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And as children of our loving Father, we have been given many gifts, starting with the first breath of life in the first moment of our very first birthday. Subsequent birthdays, even — and most especially — after we have grown up into grownups, are a meaningful opportunity to acknowledge our Father’s love: this is something that we need a lifetime to understand, because there are so many counter messages assaulting us from the world of men.” Amen
The Book of Common Prayer
Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.
“Exploring Positive Psychology.” DBOS Claremont Graduate School. September 5, 2014. http://www.cgu.edu/positivepsychology (accessed August 23, 2015).
Henderson, Carolyn. “God Gave You a Birthday, Celebrate It.” Commonsense Christianity. May 2015. ://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/commonsensechristianity/2015/05/god-gave-you-your-birthday-celebrate-it.html#IzVdKwQd47WtEiA0.99 (accessed August 23, 2015).
Luling, Todd Van. “This Is Why You Get To Celebrate Your Birthday Every Year.” Huffington Post. 11 11, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/11/history-of-birthdays_n_4227366.htmlin (accessed August 22, 2015).