Baby showers. Infant baptisms and baby dedications. Quinceañeras and sweet-sixteens. In our churches and in our cultures, there are plenty of ways to celebrate both new birth and birthdays. But is there anything unique about how Christians celebrate birth?
Christians have unique ceremonies to welcome newborns into the church, baby dedication and infant baptism. But otherwise, Christians celebrate birth and birthdays in much the same manner as their surrounding cultures.
Birth Celebrations and Birthdays
It is worthwhile to draw a distinction between the celebration of birth and the celebration of birthdays. They are related enough that we need to consider both, but distinct enough that the particulars of each deserve separate attention. But before we examine particular celebrations, let’s consider what the Bible says about celebrations of any kind.
Festivals and Celebrations
Throughout much of the church, celebrations of all kinds, including birth and birthdays, are largely seen as a matter of conscience.
Paul instructs the Colossians to “…not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day,” (Colossians 2:16).
As the church grew beyond its Jewish roots, Paul sought to clarify that it is God’s grace given through Jesus, and not the observance of holidays and traditions, that saves people and qualifies us for membership in the church.
Paul further teaches that either celebrating or refraining from celebration, are both means of honoring God, so long as the person making the choice is doing so with the conviction of conscience.
To the Romans, he writes:
“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:5-6)
The Bible has little to say about the celebration of birthdays. Where scripture speaks to birthday celebrations, it does so in descriptive, not prescriptive fashion.
Perhaps the most famous example is found in Matthew 14, when during Herod’s birthday celebration, the daughter of Herodias danced for him and subsequently requested (and was given) the head of John the Baptist.
As violent and disturbing as this particular scene is, birthday celebrations are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture. So, most Christians, when considering how to celebrate birthdays, generally do not look to scripture for the answer. Instead, Christians’ birthday celebrations are typically consistent with the celebrations that are prevalent in the surrounding culture.
Honoring God in Celebrating…
And so when Christians celebrate birthdays, particularly among the gathered church, such celebrations most often recognize milestone birthdays of the more venerable members of the congregation. Often, these birthday celebrations are expressed as gratitude for God’s gift of a long and fruitful life, and encouragement to the person whose birthday is recognized.
…And in Abstaining
Still, as a matter of conscience, there are Christians who opt not to celebrate birthdays. For some, the celebration of birthdays is an extension of the forbidden practice of astrology. Others forgo celebrating birthdays for the simple reason that scripture records the practice occurring among pagan rulers, but not among the early church.
Similarly, the Bible neither commands nor prohibits the celebration of new birth. The arrival of a child is an especially joyous occasion among all cultures throughout the world. We rightly and naturally recognize the value of new life and the love of family. And so, celebrating new birth is common among Christians, just as it is throughout the world.
Welcoming Newborns into the Church Family
While there are no specific means that Christians use to celebrate birth, there are two specific Christian traditions that are commonly associated with the arrival of a newborn.
Baby dedication and infant baptism are each used by Christian parents and their congregations to welcome newborns into the church family. The two ceremonies are similar but distinct. And each is practiced by different traditions within the Christian faith.
Throughout the Christian church, baptism is a sacrament by which individuals are welcomed into the community of believers. Baptism uses water to symbolize our cleansing and rebirth in Christ. Older children and adults are typically baptized by immersion in water, while infants and younger children are baptized by the pouring or sprinkling of water.
In many church traditions, including Catholic churches and most mainline Protestant denominations, parents present a newborn for baptism as a pledge to raise the child according to the beliefs and practices of the church. Often, the congregation who receives the child vows to affirm and support the parents and the child as a member of the faith community.
Baptism follows the practices of John the Baptist, who administered water baptism in anticipation of the arrival of Jesus. Traditions that practice infant baptism point to Biblical examples of household baptism, such as that of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:29-34.
Other Christian traditions, including Baptists, Anabaptists, and Evangelicals, administer baptism only to those who are of sufficient age to articulate faith in Jesus and who choose to be baptized as an expression of their spiritual rebirth. In such congregations, newborns are welcomed into the church family by dedication.
Baby dedications are rooted in the ancient Hebrew practice of the dedication of the firstborn child, as described in Exodus 13:2. Unlike baptism, dedication does not involve the use of water. Where the two practices are similar is in that both express the parents’ commitment to raising the child in the Christian faith, and the church’s promise to support the family in doing so.
Even from this brief exploration, we see that the celebrations practices relating to new birth and birthdays are as varied as the Christian traditions that practice them. How you choose to celebrate is a matter of your own conviction, conscience, and tradition. Both choices, made sincerely, can and do honor God. As Paul reminds us “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)