Friday, June 15, 2012

Ancient Birthday Had No Cheap Party Supplies

Birthday celebrations are a popular personal holiday for many around the world, necessitating cheap party supplies and numerous gifts, but it was not always so. For much of human history, many cultures did not seem to reckon one's own birthday to be of special importance. No cheap party supplies back then! For there was no point to the commemoration of oneself for many back then, in predemocratic times when society and the world was not generally so concerned with the individual. Indeed, many religious traditions discourage or even forbid it, to this very day (more on this soon).

Herodotus, the ancient Greek no considered "the father of history," believed that birthday celebrations went back to the ancient Persians (modern-day Iranians). No mention is made of any cheap party supplies, but Herodotus did observe that these ancient Persians ate "little solid food but an abundance of dessert" on the one day out of all the rest in a year that they revered most, their birthdays. Other ancient peoples were also given over to birthdays, evidently; the Bible specifically mentions Pharaoh's birthday. Where sundries for such events, like bowling party supplies, were available is still open to debate in anthropological communities. In some of the more conservative Jewish and even Christian traditions, birthdays are not celebrated for just that reason, their association with pagans. Indeed, many religions have prohibitions against idolatry, and the celebration of the self, even if only for a day, would seem, according to many of the strictest most conservativ! e interpretations, to smack of idolatry and self-aggrandizement, which is a principal sin.

In most forms of Orthodox Judaism, one's Jahrzeit, or day of passing, is given great importance while little mention is made of one's birthday. This feeling goes back to the Book of Ecclesiastes, wherein the Wise King in Jerusalem (traditionally held to be none other than Solomon himself) observes that "a good name [that is, reputation] is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of birth." Other rabbis, however, teach that birthdays can be useful for encouraging self-reflection.

Greek Orthodox Christianity prefers the celebration of name days (specific dates devoted to the saints after whom one was named) over birthdays, but do not prohibit birthdays outright. Jehovah's Witnesses and other "sacred name" adherents on the peripheries of mainstream Christianity do prohibit birthdays. Among Muslims, there is no prohibition against birthdays, but concern over its Western roots and connotations, especially those associated with an emphasis on the self and individualism (after all, "Islam" means "submission" or "to submit!").

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