Celebrating birthdays and what it says when we just don’t bother

It was my daughter’s birthday on Saturday. She had a great day, thanks for asking! Despite lockdown, we did our own little party games together as a family, we enjoyed some fine party food, cake and – as is our way on birthdays – her own choice of a place to eat out (or, due to restrictions, to order in from). She had a stack of presents and she enjoyed herself very much.

But what would she make of it if we decided that her birthday wasn’t to be celebrated this year? What if we’d said there would be no presents, no party games, no food? What ought she to take away from that? I think you can well imagine. She wouldn’t be best pleased and might start drawing some conclusions about what we thought of her. That would be even more pointed if we happened to celebrate her brother’s birthday earlier in the year.

What if we responded to her protests by saying, of course we love her very much, we just don’t think birthdays are that big a deal? We’re extremely glad she’s born, but we just don’t think there should be any special days set aside like that. Or, perhaps, we argued that all days are special so we don’t want to celebrate her birthday (which is normally code for, no days are really special)? But then, of course, she might see that we do treat some days differently to others for a whole host of reasons. It might feel a bit like special pleading because we didn’t really want to celebrate her birthday and didn’t think too much of her.

As we begin the run-in to Christmas, these things might be worth thinking about. What does it say about our love for Christ if we have no interest in celebrating his birth when everybody else expect us to be doing so? Of course, we might (rightly) insist, our love for Jesus isn’t measured by our approach to a single day. And, of course, just as our approach to my daughter’s birthday isn’t the measure of our love for her, it does rather convey something about our view of her if we decide to jettison her birthday altogether. We can, minimally, understand why those watching on might draw that conclusion too.

Likewise, if we are happy to celebrate our own birthday – and that of our children – but we actively eschew the birth of Jesus, many will hear the claim of ‘no special days’ and wonder why our own birthdays, and that of our nuclear family, are evident exceptions. Of course, some will insist that the ‘no special days’ relates to the Christian calendar. When they do that, they gladly ignore the glaring elephant of the sabbatarianism to which they often subscribe that insists Sunday is special – even supporting ‘keep Sunday special’ campaigns and everything! But even if not sabbatarian, the obvious celebration of family birthdays and the acknowledgement of other life events makes it a difficult circle to square. Minimally, again, some will draw conclusions from that disparity to our view of Christ (rightly or wrongly).

The fact is, our marking of the birth of Christ – for good or ill – will be viewed by some as a mark of our love for Christ altogether. We can insist until we’re blue in the face that it just ain’t so, but if we recognise missing our children’s birthdays might (at the very least) look quite bad to others and – at worst – actually be symptomatic of how we view them, and may well be viewed by our children themselves that way even if we don’t think it’s true, doesn’t the same hold in respect to Jesus?

No, Christmas isn’t commanded in the Bible. It’s not something you must do. No, one day doesn’t act on its own as the measure of your love for Christ. No, modern western understandings of what it means to celebrate are not necessarily what we ought to do. No, the church calendar doesn’t need to dictate that we must hold a ‘religious’ celebration per se. Secular Christmas is, actually, biblically perfectly fine. But at heart, when others would expect us to mark the birth of Christ, what are we saying to them when we don’t? If we wouldn’t countenance missing our children’s birthday – and a resolute desire not to celebrate might suggest something about how we view them – it might be worth thinking about that in respect to Jesus and the day our culture has decided to celebrate his.