Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8)
Confession of a Christmas Baby
Back in the days when store check-out clerks examined drivers licenses before accepting checks, my birthdate often elicited the response, “A Christmas baby! You poor thing!”
The birth of Christ presumably spoiled my Christmas Eve birthday as the sacred music at the larger celebration drowned out the “Happy Birthday” jingle at mine, if I had a party at all. Moreover, the timing of my birthday proved a money saver, as folks only really needed to buy one gift for me, labelled, “Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas!”
That does, in fact, describe my birthday experience, especially in childhood. And I know many a Christmas baby who gets downright morose about this. But I never did. In my childhood distraction, I never noticed the reduced gift volume. Rather shy, I did not like parties, even as the honored guest. Precocious in piety, I felt special enough for sharing a birthday season with Jesus.
Nevertheless, it did some damage. Before Facebook’s reminders, I suffered from a lifelong forgetfulness of others’ birthdays. I could not wrap my mind around caring whether people remembered it.
Some Possible Meanings of Birthdays
Birthdays never meant much to me, but for some unknown reason, the Spirit moves me to reflect on the meaning of birthdays this Christmas season. I can see several perspectives:
- The astronomical view.My wife, Wanda, used to teach music at a Montessori School. On every child’s birthday, the class sat around a yellow ball representing the sun. The birthday child grabbed a globe and walked around it the same number of revolutions as the child’s years, say, seven times on the seventh birthday. Classmates sang repeatedly, “The earth goes around the sun, tra-la-la, around and around and around.” This is the astronomical view.
- The biographer’s appropriation of the astronomical view. Granting that we do not ride the earth around the sun in eager anticipation of completing another revolution of 365 ¼ days, those revolutions provide convenient, if arbitrary, markers for measuring age and indexing critical turning points in the record of a life.
- The capitalist view. On our birthdays, we catalyze economic growth by reminding others to purchase goods for us that we normally would not buy ourselves. This is especially critical to the greeting card industry.
- The Marxist critique of the capitalist view. Birthdays are another opiate of the people, tricking them into feeling special when they are, in fact, mere cogs in the market machine that benefits only the bourgeoisie. Ironically, the thoroughgoing capitalist, Ebeneezer Scrooge, agrees.
- The ontological view.The greatest miracle and gift, being, is so constant and pervasive that for 364 days, we take it for granted. Birthdays remind us of the wonder that, for mysterious reasons, we exist.
- The communitarian view. When a new life comes into a community, the community changes. On birthdays communities recognize the individual who adds color to the whole, and individuals salute communities for shaping them. The Montessori School children’s ritual (above) pertains more to shared ritual and song than to circling the sun.
Each view above has merit to varying degrees. But a peek at the history of birthdays adds even fresher perspective.
Highlights from the History of Birthdays
The birthday party website, Pump It Up, offers a primer on the history of birthdays. Biblical scholars trace the first reference to birthdays to that of the Egyptian Pharaoh in roughly 3000 BCE. Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh was a god, so the birth was the inbreaking of divinity into their world. Presumably, the birth dates of the Pharaoh’s wine-taster or the construction workers who built the pyramids did not matter.
The ancient Greeks, too, restricted birthday celebrations to the gods. Candles on cakes took on special significance, as the light warded off demons and the smoke from blown out candles ascended as prayers. Romans introduced birthdays of mere mortals, but only privileged ones, celebrating the birthdays of male citizens.
Given that birthdays developed to celebrate pagan gods and Roman elites, little wonder early Christians eschewed birthdays until the 4th century. But as Christianity emerged from persecution to privilege as the official Roman religion, what could they do but modify the tradition of the citizens to a celebration of the birth of Christ?
Christmas and Your Birthday
Historically, then, for Christians, Christmas is the model birthday. Theologically, Christ is the model human being, and more than a model. Jesus Christ is the ultimate human being. Pontius Pilate, who had a way of telling the truth about Christ without any idea what he meant, got it right unawares when he presented the suffering Christ before sentencing with the words, “Behold, the man!” (John 19:5) Indeed, the rest of us are not as fully human as Christ. We rely on him to help us become fully human.
So if Christmas is the model birthday, what does your birthday and mine mean, Christmas baby or not? I think of Thomas Merton’s contemporary blessing, “You are a word spoken by God.” I think of God’s blessing upon the birth of the first humans, as the story goes in Genesis, creating them, male and female, in God’s image, the imago dei (Genesis 1:26-27).
Our birthdays do not mark the birth of gods. But they do mark the birth of someone “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) who bears witness to the divine just by being. We bear witness even more clearly by being awake, by loving and praising, and if we spend each revolution around the sun with our eyes on Christ and our hearts open, we will see God. And however broken or lonely we get along the way, God will see with pleasure something of the imago dei in each of us, and those mortals with an eye for the sacred will too. I suppose, then, everyone is a Christmas baby.
Image by Anna Langova, Public Domain