Ahead of the U.S. Open this week, Serena Williams surprised fans when she said she won’t celebrate her daughter Alexis Olympia’s first birthday this Saturday — or any, for that matter.
The reason? Her religion.
“We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, so we don’t do that,” the 36-year-old tennis superstar told reporters at a U.S. Open press conference.
According to the official website for Jehovah’s Witnesses, followers of the church don’t believe in celebrating birthdays “because we believe that such celebrations displease God.”
“Although the Bible does not explicitly forbid celebrating birthdays, it does help us to reason on key features of these events and understand God’s view of them,” the website said. One of the reasons for Jehovah’s Witnesses to avoid birthdays is they believe the celebrations have pagan roots.
Though Williams doesn’t often speak about her faith, she has opened up about it on some rare occasions.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses official website, the religion is a form of Christianity that follows both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses see Jesus as the son of God and savior, but do not believe he’s the “Almighty God.”
Further, members of the faith do not believe that a soul survives death, and subsequently do not adhere to the Christian idea of Hell, according to the site.
Among the more discussed practices, include that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not vote and remain politically neutral. Additionally, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe blood is sacred, and thus do not get blood transfusions.
Much like birthdays, it’s also advised that Jehovah’s Witnesses refrain from religious holiday and U.S. holiday celebrations — including Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day and Halloween.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are also recommended to not attend the weddings of those of other religions (though Williams and Ohanian were present at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s nuptials at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor earlier this year).
Williams and her siblings — including fellow tennis star Venus Williams — converted in the early ’80s, according to the Washington Post, after their mother Oracene Price.
The outlet reported in 2015 that Williams has previously said she attends church, and as part of her faith has participated in the required evangelizing door-to-door.
As the Washington Post noted, Williams often thanks the Jehovah God after her matches.
There have been times, though, where her faith has both faltered and bolstered her.
RELATED VIDEO: Serena and Venus Will Face Off at the U.S. Open This Week — What to Know
According to the New York Times, after an profanity-laden outburst against a U.S. Open line judge in 2009 — during which the woman claimed the athlete threatened her — Williams had to face elder witnesses.
“They had to have a talk with me,” Williams told the outlet in 2007. “And I knew it was coming. I just felt really bad, though, because it’s like, that’s not who I am.”
She further explained, “They just talk to you. They show you Scriptures. Not ministers, they call them elders. It’s almost like a reprimand, but it’s not bad, because in the Bible it says God loves you, and if someone reprimands you, they love you.”
Years prior — when her sister Yetunde Price was murdered in 2003 — Williams also leaned on scripture, attending three Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings a week, according to the Times. She said, “I tried to develop a better relationship with God.”
As her career has amped up in recent years — and she married Alexis Ohanian, 35, and welcomed their daughter — Williams seemed to allude to a step back from, and a return to, her faith.
“Being a Jehovah’s Witness is important to me, but I’ve never really practiced it and have been wanting to get into it,” she told Vogue last year.
Of her husband, she added, “Alexis didn’t grow up going to any church, but he’s really receptive and even takes the lead. He puts my needs first.”
And now, as she noted earlier this week, they’re focused on the needs of their daughter.