Would Jesus say “Happy Birthday?” Many Catholics would answer, “of course!” After all, Catholics believe that birth is a gift from God surely worth celebrating. Therefore, not only would Jesus allow the greeting, he would even recommend it.
But before there were birthday bashes, birthdays were bashed. For over 300 years, Church leaders such as Origen taught that “it is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below.” They considered celebrating birthdays a blasphemy, a disgusting practice performed only by pagans.
Birthdays were blasphemous because dedicating a day to one person was considered idolatry — worshipping a false god — and participating in such rituals was apostasy — adhering to a false religion. It was common knowledge to early Catholics that the false god was Mithra and the false religion was Mithraism. For two centuries Mithraism was Christianity’s main competitor, so many Christian converts came from Mithraism.
Most notable among them was Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity and officially enforce it. But although he is responsible for spreading this religion, Constantine’s critics, especially the early Catholic leaders, question whether it was really Christianity he was spreading. Because many elements of Mithraism are evident in Constantine’s Christianity.
Before Constantine promoted his hybrid version, many of the Mithraic doctrines and practices now shared by mainstream Christianity were not held by pre-Constantine Christians. For instance, early Christians followed the Biblical Sabbath day, Saturday. But Constantine changed the Sabbath day to Sunday, the day of his former Sun-God Mithra.
He also changed the dates of two of the most important Holy Days: Passover and Christmas. Some even accused him of changing the day of Passover to Sunday to somehow honor his birthday. And back then, Christians didn’t even celebrate Christ’s birth. Two reasons: first, celebrating birthdays was blasphemous; second, they didn’t even know when it was. Considering how much Constantine loved birthdays, giving one to his new god only made sense.
But why December 25? Again, two reasons: first, many Romans already celebrated that date as Saturnalia; second, it was the birthday of Constantine’s former Sun-God Mithra.
Constantine’s actions made historians question whether he was spreading Christianity or just using it as a tool to unify his kingdom. Since such unification was also a major Mithraic goal, it’s not a stretch that even Constantine’s Christianization had pagan origins.
Like Christianity in general, the pagan origins of birthdays remain evident to this day. Birthday greetings are based on the belief that spells and charms are more potent on the day of your birth — when your soul was closest to the spirit world — and parties were held so that friends and family could protect the celebrant from evil spirits on this most vulnerable day. Birthday gifts recall pagan sacrifices, revealing the morbid origins of giving dolls as gifts (Yup, human sacrifice). Round birthday cakes lit with candles paid tribute to the moon god Artemis, and the magical flames blown out would carry our wishes to the gods.
So. Would Jesus say “Happy Birthday”? There is no record of him doing so, and because Jesus was a Jew who followed Jewish teachings, he probably never did. He even had good reason to hate birthday celebrations more than early Christians: The only birthday recorded in the New Testament was Herod’s, and he celebrated it by chopping John the Baptist’s head off, delivering it on a platter to his daughter and wife to fulfill their birthday wish.