Did Germanic/Scandianvian Heathens celebrate Birthdays?
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Disclaimer: Aldsidu is about the Old Ways Aldsidu means "Old Ways/Customs." While Birthday parties for kids/adults were not a historical pre-christian custom in Heathen society, I am not against celebrating birthdays even as a reconstructionist Heathen. I did for my children (now adults) as a reconstructionist Heathen when they were children, and my children were raised recon Heathens. While I do keep only Old Ways for holidays (dating and meaning) and I follow the rituals as attested in the sources (reconstructed from the sources), I see birthdays as a "secular" and "family" event, not necessarily religious/spiritual. Nor am I against any Heathen making a birthday ritual or including spirituality in any way.
Birthdays https://www.aldsidu.com/post/the-historical-heathen-holidays-and-calendar In a previous blog article (link above), I proved that pre-christian Europe did not know a period of time called a "week" until this was imported from the Middle-East. A seven day week was unknown in Proto-Indo-European culture. I even proved that the New Testament, written at the end of the first century, did not have a word for "week", but counted days from the Sabbath. "One from the Sabbath" in the Greek New Testament gets translated as "first day of the week" in modern Bibles. The Greco-Roman world did not have a word for a "week" yet when the Bible was being written. Even in the first two centuries of the common era, the writings of not just the bible, but the Church Fathers as well all state: "One (day) from the Sabbath" as Sunday, or "The Lord's Day" (or they just called it "The Eighth Day." The "Eighth Day" is a common phrase in early christian literature.)
A fact that is shocking, one that most people do not know, is that there were only two birthday parties/celebrations in the Bible. That is right, Semitic cultures did not celebrate birthdays in biblical times. One of the two birthday celebrations in the Bible is in the book of Genesis, where Pharoah has a birthday party, where Joseph through a dream predicted a cup-bearer would be restored and a baker would lose his life. (Genesis chapter 40.) Please note, Pharoah is an Egyptian, he is not a Hebrew (or an Israelite.) The other birthday party in the Bible is where Herod Agrippa, an Idumean has a birthday party. The Idumeans were not Israelites either, as Idumeans were descendents of Edom, an area outside of Israel. Nonetheless, Herod the Idumean Ruler (appointed by Rome), had a birthday party, and a guest danced so well, he promised her anything she requested, and she requested the head of John the Baptist (and John was beheaded.) (Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:14–27; Luke 9:9) Nonetheless, in the BIble, there are only two birthday celebrations, and both were by Gentiles (non-Jews), who put people to death on their birthdays. There are ultra-orthodox Jewish sects today that still do not celebrate birthdays, as they consider birthdays to not be a teaching passed on from Moshe (Moses) and the Law of Moses (the Torah of Moshe.)
This being said, some non-Jewish peoples certainly celebrated birthdays before the start of the common era. But birthday parties in northern Europe were not celebrated until after christianization. A word for “birth day” (burðar-dagr) does exist in Old Norse languages, but it only appears in Old Norse after the end of the Viking Age, when Scandinavia was christian, and usually only in reference to the birth of Christ. Germanic/Scandinavians did keet track of how many winters a person lived (more on this below) and they celebrated certain milestones, like a teething ceremony (more on this below) when everyone gave gifts to a baby who had lived long enough to cut a tooth (about one year) and had thus survived the most perilous part of infancy and had at least a 60% chance of making it to 15.
The Lunisolar Calendar of the Germanic Peoples
Keeping birthdays on a specific day of a certain moon would be more difficult in the pre-christian Heathen Germanic world. Germanic and Scandianvian Peoples had "days of the moon" and not "days of a week." They did not follow solar calendars the way we do today. I have written extensive blog articles on this too. The Poetic Edda also has days of the moon waning and waxing (shrinking and growing.) Scandinavian Peoples are Germanic Peoples. Old Norse languages are Germanic languages, and the Germanic Tribes (including Scandianvians) all venerated the Aesir. But in all Germanic languages, the word "moon" is related to the word "month." A "month" is a lunar cycle. In Germanic languages, if you add a "th" to a number (like add "th" to "six" and you get "sixth") you now have sequential numbers. In Germanic languages, when you add a "th" to the word "moon" you get the word "month." I understand today that months are completely detached from the moons, but to be blunt, christianity and Rome brought customs that did not make much sense. It is strange to me today that a "month" is a period of time completely detached from the moon, and therefore, using the word "month" for periods of time having nothing to do with the moon is illogical. (And other christian words are illogical too, for example, I disagree with the christian definition of a saint. To me, this word should be: "Saint" (noun). A dead sinner revised and edited.) Nonetheless, I digressed... Point is, Rome and Roman Christianity did bring much illogical thoughts to the pre-Christian Heathen Germanic world. (They brought good things too...)
How did pre-christian Heathens tell their age? The solar calendar is something everyone is comfortable with, as we live by a purely solar calendar and born into a world that ignores the moon. People do not look at the sun to tell what time of day it is anymore, nor do they look at the moon to tell what day of the lunar cycle it is anymore. If the world lost all its technology today, humanity probably would struggle to survive, as technology has "decolonized" us. But nonetheless, Heathens historically, counted their age by how many winters they lived.
The Heimskingrla's Ynglinga Saga (chapter 34), “There a great blot was held and many kings came as it was midwinter. And one winter when many folks were gathered in Upsala, King Yngvar was there with his sons, who were six winters old.” I can share MANY passages like this. The Old Saxons even had a word "uuintargitalu" (pronounced "winter-yi-ta-lu") meaning "winter years." While I read Old Saxon daily, my Old Norse skills are not fluent, but I would be shocked if the other Germanic Languages did not have related words to "uuintergitalu." Winter Nights (according to the Sagas) is the start of the Germanic year, and Winter Nights was a blot for a good year. Heathens simply stated how old they were by stating how many winters they lived. “Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force in Asaland… On winter day (first day of winter) there should be blot for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third blot should be on summer day, a Victory-blot.” [Ynglinga Saga, ch 8]
The Old Saxons and Birthdays
When the Old Saxons were forcefully converted in the 8th and 9th centuries (the Saxons in Old Saxony, most Saxons did not move to Angle-Land, i.e. England), the Heliand, a poem (like Beowulf) but of Jesus was written to present christ as a Heathen Hero. In this epic poem, written to convert the Saxons, the Heliand poet wrote the Roman ideal and the Heathen ideal, to explain "different" customs to the Saxons. For example, crucifixion was a Roman form of capital punishment unknown to the Saxons. So in the Heliand, written circa 830 AD/CE, crucifixion is described in this way: "nailed to a cross, hung from a tree." This may come across to us as "odd" when reading it today, as one cannot both be nailed to a cross and hung from a tree at the same time, but again, the Old Saxons were not familiar with crucifixion. The Old Saxons understood hanging prisoners of war to Uuoden (Odin), and spearing the hung prisoner as well, as Uuoden hung from the Saxon Irminsul (Norse Yggdrasil) and speared himself as well. So, to explain crucifixion to the Saxons, we see passages like these two (for just two examples):
So, what does this have to do with birthdays to the Old Saxons? The Heliand flat out explains what a birthday party is to the Saxons, and no Saxon equivalent is given. The Heliand flat out states that brithday parties was a custom of the Jews. Which of course is totally FALSE as I explained above! Jewish people celebrating birthdays is a modern custom for them. The church, in their anti-semitism, never understood Jews, nor the Hebrew/Jewish bible very well. There is a reason why the new testament totally contradicts the Jewish Bible, and there is a reason why christians never learned it. It was the church who called the Jewish Bible "the Old (and irrelevant) Testament."
Back to Birthdays, the Heliand calls birthdays a "thau of the Jews." (A Custom of the Jews.) This implies even Christians were not keeping birthdays completely at this time. This is a clear indication to Saxon readers/hearers of the Heliand, that birthdays were viewed by the church as a "Jewish" thing. And only two of the four gospels of Jesus' life even record Jesus' birth. Celebrating Jesus' birth was actually debated by the early church, but later adopted. It appears that the early church originally followed the First Century Jewish disdain for birthdays. Here is a passage from the Heliand, written in Old Saxon circa 830 CE/AD, starting in verse 2728:
Now, my "detractors" will laugh at me, saying, "Here is Robert Sass, claiming because birthdays are not in the Heliand, so Heathens did not do them, what an idiot!" To be blunt, a birthday party is in the Heliand, and birthday parties are not in the Eddas, nor 700 some odd Sagas nor Poems. And, I am not telling recon Heathens not to do birthday parties for their children, as I did. But to me, modern birthday parties are a secular family celebration of love for the one having a birthday. I am simply stating, Heathens did not historically celebrate birthdays until later, post Christianity. I would also ask my detractors to find an Edda or Saga passage showing a birthday party/celebration. (PS- I can show in the sagas Scandiavian Christians going to mass, so please, find a HEATHEN in the sagas, celebrating a birthday. Many of the Sagas are written about Christians like the Saga of Hakon the Good who was "the grinch who stole Yule" by moving it from the full moon of Jolmanuthr (Yule Moon) to the Solstice on the Julian Calendar (Dec 25th), as a way to enforce Christ Mass (Xmas). Judaism celebrates Jahrzeits (the anniversary of one's death.) Heathens had a similar practice, as I can show Saga passages of heathens doing a sumble for their desceased father/family member. In Old Saxony there was also a ritual called the erƀifalu (this word is reconstructed from the Old Norse word “erfi”). This is done a couple moons after the funeral, where there is a memory toast to the deceased Ancestor and the heirs received their inheritance. So, did Heathens do birthday's historically? Probably not. But I am not arguing that we should not celebrate our loved one's lives with a birthday party today. But, The gods gave Freyr Alfheim for a teething present. Why did teething gifts stop? (An interesting thought...) This blog post was done by request. Please join us on the Facebook Group Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry. Please visit the Aldsidu YouTube channel, and please like and subscribe. Thank you.