Monday, January 01, 2018


Birthday and Deathday Celebrations

Brent D. Shaw, "Seasons of Death: Aspects of Mortality in Imperial Rome," Journal of Roman Studies 86 (1996) 100-138 (at 103):
The anniversary of one's biological birthday had been celebrated by 'pagans' with great festivity. The Christians reversed this perspective. They tended to denigrate, devalue, and even ignore secular birthday celebrations; now it was the precise time of one's death that became the centre of a new sense of celebration. The point of transition from the deathly pall of this existence to the eternal reward of perfect life was the time that was important and deserving of memory. Christians, therefore, placed particular emphasis on the precise date when a person died. Christian rhetoric was marked by an ironic reversal (typical of many rebellious ideologies) which asserted that death was actually the point of birth into life. Hence Christians frequently refer to the day of one's death as the day of one's birth (natus) or birthday (dies natalis).14 The actual number of years one had traversed in this life — a shadowy and evil thing configured by sin and by demonic forces that had systematically to be exorcized at baptism — was of less concern. The first transition in this time towards one's new life was marked by the liminal ritual of baptism. It was then that one began the process of being born again. Hence the frequent identification of a Christian in our inscriptions as either a neophytus or a neophyta — a person who was a 'new growth'.15 What was much more worth remarking upon and recording on one's burial-marker, therefore, was the temporal point of the transition into one's genuine life, a reality that required no measurement since it would be eternal.16 The place of burial became significant for this reason. It was a temporary place of repose, or sleep, where the true relatives, the 'brothers' and 'sisters' of the deceased's Christian family, would come once a year to celebrate his or her birthday. As Tertullian phrased it, 'on the anniversary of their death we make ritual offerings to the dead in celebration of their birth' ('oblationes pro defunctis pro nataliciis annua die facimus').17

14 Consider: 'natus in pace': ICUR 9046 (for death); 'natus': 9060 (death); 'natale suo': 9228 (day of death); 'quo et natus est cuius anima cum sanctus in pace': 15634; 'natus in pace': 24060 (day of death); 'qui natus': 24180 (death).

15 J. Janssens, Vita e morte del cristiano negli epitaffi di Roma anteriori al sec. VII (1981), I.1.5, 'I neofiti', 26-32, notes how often Christians took care to emphasize the ritual of baptism, even when performed shortly before death itself.

16 On the new ideology see A.C. Rush, Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity, The Catholic University of America Studies in Christian Antiquity I (1941), esp. pt. I, ch. 3, 'Death as Birth. The Day of Death as Dies Natalis', 72-87. See also A. Stuiber, 'Geburtstag', RAC 9 (1976), 217-43, esp. 220-33, on the ways in which Roman practices were redefined and designated by Christians in connection with the absolute value that they placed on life-after-death, especially as exemplified by the deaths of the martyrs.

17 Tertullian, De Corona 3; cf. De Exhortatione Castitatis I 1; and De Monogamia 10.

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