Jehovah's Witnesses
and the Issue of Birthdays.

© Spotlight Ministries, Vincent McCann, 2002
www.spotlightministries.org.uk



Jehovah's Witnesses often reject birthdays as "pagan" and will therefore refuse to participate in them. In addition to this, Witnesses also reject birthdays because they claim that they are placed in an unfavourable light in the Bible. The Bible only mentions two instances of birthdays (at least explicitly). These are Genesis 40:20-22, and Matthew 14:6-10. Two pagan rulers are in view: Pharaoh and Herod.

The Watchtower states, in the Reasoning book:

"Do Bible references to birthday celebrations put them in a favourable light? The Bible makes only two references to such celebrations...Jehovah's Witnesses take note that God's Word reports unfavourably about birthday celebrations and to shun these." (Reasoning from the Scriptures, pp. 68-69).

Jehovah's Witnesses argue that as negative things happened on these men's birthdays, then all birthdays must be evil. This is clearly a case of guilt by association as far as the Watchtower is concerned. But is this really sound reasoning?

It is worth asking a Witness, to read the above mentioned texts and ask: "What is the source of the evil in the Biblical accounts? The birthdays or the men (Pharaoh and Herod) themselves? Obviously, it is the men who did the evil. There is nothing to suggest that these men did evil because of their birthdays. These men did evil all the time not just on their birthdays. Also, in the Genesis account, Pharaoh also did some good by setting a man free!

Jehovah's Witness defender, Greg Stafford, who is well known for his apologetics for Watchtower doctrine, has recently written a new book in which he actually questions the prohibitions of the Watchtower on various issues, some of which are Christmas and birthdays. This is what Stafford, has to say about the Watchtowers prohibitions of birthdays in the light of the Biblical data:

"Regarding Pharaoh's birthday, there is nothing explicit linking birthday celebrations in general to "cruel acts." Naturally, occasions for celebration can provide an outlet for excessive or immoral acts. But in this case the "cruel acts" against the chief cupbearers and the chief of the bakers were in fulfillment of the dreams interpreted by Joseph. It is similar with Herod's birthday celebration. The account in Matthew does not say that John was beheaded because of Herod's birthday celebration. Rather, he was beheaded because of the request of Herodias and her daughter, and Herod's oath to her. Indeed, there is nothing in Matthew's account that explicitly states that John's head was brought to the birthday celebration at all. It only says that his head was "given to the maiden, and she brought it to her mother" (Matthew 14:11). The presentation may have occurred at the celebration, but as with the account in Genesis 40 there is nothing tying such an act to birthdays in general." ." (Greg Stafford, Three Dissertations on the Teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses, pp. 208-209).

Witnesses often argue that there is no mention of birthdays being celebrated by any of God's servants in the Bible. Although there are no explicit references, it would appear that there is a possible implicit reference to birthday celebrations in Job (Job 1:4, 5). If this is talking about birthday celebrations, they seem to be being spoken of favourably. Job talks about Job's sons each holding a feast on "his day". In Job 3:1-4, the same Hebrew word for "day" (yowm) is used when Job curses the "day" of his birth.

Another point worth considering is that of the vast amount of chronological data in the Bible, regarding the ages of people. Obviously, there can be no doubt that Jews and Christians were certainly keeping track of people's ages. Just a couple of brief example: Moses was 40 when he was called and died at age 80 in the wilderness. There is even the recording of Jesus' age, when He was 12 and visited Jerusalem with His parents (Luke 2:42). Are we really to conclude that the arrival of a persons birthday would produce no celebration, or emotional response at all? In the light of the fact that Christians were certainly keeping a record of people's ages, one could easily imagine that such an occasion could well lead to some sort of celebration. What is an individuals definition of `celebration`?

Concerning special days the Bible clearly states that we should not judge anyone with regards to the keeping of days that are special to them:

"One indeed judges a day above another day; and another one judges every day alike. Let each one be fully assured in his own mind. The one minding the day, he minds it to the Lord. And the one not minding the day, he does not mind it to the Lord. The one eating, he eats to the Lord; for he gives thanks to God. And the one not eating, he does not eat to the Lord, and gives thanks to God." (Rom 14:5-6)

JW defender, Greg Stafford comments on this text, in the context of his discussion on birthdays and Christmas. Although Stafford does not want to be misunderstood as being one who is advocating the celebration of Christmas ("at this time"), he points out the legalism of the Society by measuring a persons spirituality, indeed, salvation, based on the celebration or abstinence of Christmas and birthday celebrations:

"...it is important to discuss the problems associated with the reason for the Witnesses' rejection of it, and why the enforcing of strict standards for what days and festivals a Christian should or should not celebrate in order to be considered a Christian is of serious concern. Paul wrote:...[Rom. 14:5 cited]...When it comes to birthdays and holidays, including Christmas, the current situation among Jehovah's Witnesses is not one in which warnings are given about certain aspects of such celebrations, which may be inappropriate or harmful. Rather, it is taught that any sort of Christmas celebrating is a dishonor to the king, Christ Jesus, and in direct conflict with God's Word. No one studying the Bible with Jehovah's Witnesses could get baptized as one of Jehovah's Witnesses if they continued to practice any aspect of the Christmas celebration. The same is true of birthdays." (Greg Stafford, Three Dissertations on the Teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 211, italics in the original).

With regards to birthdays being rejected because of pagan associations, another Watchtower publication states the following:

"Le livres des religions (The Book of Religions), an encyclopedia widely distributed in France, calls this custom a ritual and lists it among "secular rites." Although considered to be a harmless secular custom day, birthday celebrations are actually rooter in paganism. The Encyclopedia Americana (1991 edition) states: The ancient world of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Persia celebrated the birthdays of gods, kings, and nobles." (Jehovah's Witnesses and Education, p. 15.)

Are these really sound reasons for denying someone, especially a child, a special day? Are these really sound reasons for stopping a child from engaging in parties with their peers, and unnecessarily risk them being isolated? When children engage in birthday parties do they worship pagan god's or have people put to death? Obviously, if they did, then no one who seeks to serve God would want their child attending! But obviously, no such things happen at a child's party.

Stafford comments:

"When you consider the basis for the Witnesses' rejection of the practice of throwing rice, several questions arise. Certainly, it is debateable, if not highly unlikely, that persons would throw rice in accordance with the traditional practice are consciously intending to 'invoke magic'. Usually, such a practice is offered as an expression of good will towards the married couple, nothing more. This brings us to the core issue: intent. There are many customs and celebrations today which have pagan origins or which incorporate ornaments or traditions that are pagan. But how many people today who participate in such traditions make a conscious association between what they do and what others did many centuries ago?... In the same light, I know of no Jehovah's Witness who would think twice about partaking of a wedding cake even though this is associated with pagan customs. In ancient times, the cake was a symbol of fertility....The same is true for the wearing of veils and wedding rings, customs that are surrounded by superstition. For example, the wearing of the ring on the third finger (from the thumb) of the left hand was done because ancient cultures believed it had a vein running straight to the heart. In some ancient cultures the ring was also thought to protect its wearer from evil spirits. But who today makes a conscious association between these beliefs and the wearing of a wedding ring?..." (Greg Stafford, Three Dissertations on the Teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses, pp. 206-207)

There is too much to quote here, but Stafford then goes on to point out that as these things (above) do not have pagan association today, then things such as Christmas and birthdays should not be associated with paganism for today's people as this connection, or "intent" is not made today.

Although it is certainly true that there are no records of the early Christians celebrating birthdays, and that the few mentions of it in Church history appear to be negative, there are some good reasons why this was so.

Robert Bowman notes:

"As long as a celebration was associated indelibly in their culture with pagan religion or immorality or both, Christians would naturally refrain. However, as Christians became more dominant in their culture, they would naturally and properly adapt its customs while stripping them of their false and immoral associations."

This is exactly why various practice that clearly have their origins in ancient paganism, such as rice throwing, honeymoons, anniversaries, wedding rings, wedding veils, wedding cakes, and tombstones, etc. are acceptable to Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses alike now. Even though they are of pagan origin they are now stripped of "their false and immoral associations." (to quote Bowman). The same is also true of birthdays. Unfortunately, the Watchtower fail to recognize this with regards to birthdays, and maintain a double standard.

Additionally, another explanation for there not being records of early Christians celebrating birthdays could well be that the many of the early Christians simply could not afford them. This was no problem for Herod and Pharaoh, who had great wealth:

"Although historians are certain that people have observed their birthdays for quite some time, there are few records of such celebrations that still exist. Of these few descriptions, only those birthdays of kings, high-ranking nobility, and other important figures have been documented. Common people and especially children never celebrated their birth when the idea came about. This trend has been explained by a theory that nobility were the only people wealthy enough to throw such celebrations, and quite possibly were the only ones deemed important enough to have been written about or remembered. Some historians believe these early birthday bashes resulted in the custom of wearing birthday "crowns" as time went on." (Source: http://www.birthdayexpress.com/bexpress/planning/BirthdayCelebrations.asp).

What is particularly interesting about this quote is that the possible reference to Job and his family celebrating a birthday in Job 1:4 (discussed earlier) would make perfect sense, considering the vast wealth of Job and his family (compare Job 1:3).

Stafford comments further on the issue of birthdays:

"Should Jehovah's Witnesses have the freedom to decide, without fear of losing friends or family, whether to celebrate the birth of their daughter or son, or the birth of God's Son? Should they have the freedom to decide, without fear of losing possible Christian responsibilities or of being spiritually "weak," whether to file a monthly report of the time spent in service to God? More to the point of our present inquiry, should those who claim to have been appointed by Christ as his "faithful and discreet slave" impose their own views on these matters rather than allow each Christian to be "fully convinced in his own mind"? It is my hope that after reading these Three Dissertations the reader will be better able to answer these questions without suffering any loss of faith in Jehovah God and his Son Jesus Christ, both of whom will always be there when and where humans fail." (Greg Stafford, Three Dissertations on the Teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses, pp. 208-209; 211-212).

There is nothing explicit in the Bible that that commands us to celebrate or not to celebrate birthdays. Rather, the Bible has given us a general guide on this issue when it says that we should each be convinced in our own minds (Rom. 14:5) as to the importance or non-importance of a particular day, and that it should be a matter for the conscience of the individual, between them and God, as to whether we celebrate that day or not. However, in contrast to all this, the Watchtower clearly enforces the non-celebration of certain days, to the point that a person's standing before God Himself is in jeopardy, if a birthday is celebrated in any way. The sad thing about all of this is that it is the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves who end up suffering, particularly their young people. Jehovah's Witness children can be made to feel unnecessarily isolated from their class mates when they have to decline invitations to birthday parties, and non-Witness relatives can be unnecessarily offended by the refusal of JW relatives to send them birthday or Christmas cards.






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