No birthday is complete without something sweet, some candles and a precious wish. However surely the practice of lighting a cake on fire, or better yet stuffing ourselves with cake had to start somewhere…
Celebrating can be a bittersweet occasion. For some it can be a joyful event to celebrate the gift of life. For others, it can be an unwelcome reminder of becoming a year older. Either way, each birthday hopefully finds you wiser with the occasion made sweeter by a tasty birthday cake and a magical wish for the year.
In Asia, traditional food served during birthdays varies. In China, birthday pastry called shòu bāo (壽包, simp. 寿包) or shòu táo bāo (壽桃包, simp. 寿桃包) is a bun made of wheat flour served individually instead of one big cake. Koreans serve seaweed soup, while Southeast Asians traditionally serve Birthday noodles to represent long life. But overall, the birthday cake still holds its position of power.
Birthday cake trends keep getting wilder and wilder- from Unicorn cakes to naked cakes- but their origin remains fairly simplistic. So before you gobble up another cake, let’s trace the origin of this worldwide practice of commemorating your birthday by blowing out candles on a birthday cake.
While there is currently no clear evidence pointing to the origin of birthday celebrations, rabbi and scholar Benjamin Edidin Scolnic points out in his book that the earliest known mention of a birthday in history is in Genesis 40:20 when Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, came upon a pharaoh who threw a feast for his birthday. Other scholars doubted whether the celebration mentioned is the same as the current incarnation of birthdays, although Dr. James Hoffmeier explained that it could be a reference to the pharaoh’s coronation instead of his actual birthday. According to him, Egyptians believed that pharaohs became gods when they are crowned, thus their coronation marks their “birth” as a god.
Celebration and Cultic Birthday Cakes in Roman Culture
The birthday cake, meanwhile, may have originated in ancient Rome. Dr. Sarah Bond points out that the Romans liked celebrating dies natalis or birth day not just for people, but temples and cities as well. Though the practice of celebrating people’s birthdays were often ritualistic and cultic in nature where religion and celebration intersect as attendees clad in white robes would sacrifice a spiritual deity for the protection of the new born, burn incense—and eat ritual cakes, of course.
Birthday Candles: Origin and Symbolism
Incense transitioned to candles when Greeks celebrated birthdays. Author Linda Rannells Lewis attribute the placing of candles on cakes to the ancient Greeks. Lewis wrote that every lunar month, the Greeks would offer moon-shaped honey cakes with lit candles to Artemis, moon goddess of the hunt.
Much like the symbolic significance of burning incense, the smoke created from blowing out candles likely stems from the fact that Egyptians believed that the smoke from incense creates a means of communicating your intentions to the heavens. Similarly, blowing out your birthday candles send your wishes to the ears of the higher powers where they may come into fruition.
The more familiar use of candles with cakes, now observed during birthday celebrations, can be traced back to 18th century Germany’s Kinderfest tradition which roughly translates to children’s party. In 1799, writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe supposedly noted that during the birthday celebration a giant cake topped with lit candles, equivalent to the age of the celebrant, would be brought to the dining table. Other Germans would use only one candle placed on the centre of the cake meant to ward off evil spirits. In this instance, the candle is marked 1 to 12 and would be burned down to the child’s corresponding age.
Victorians then borrowed this idea of birthday cakes and candles from the Germans in the 1800s, with a few lavish improvements naturally. The wealthy and extravagant Victorians began serving two-layer cakes arrived when the freestanding cook stove was invented in the 1840s.
Finally, the current incarnation of blowing out candles on birthdays likewise appears in Great Britain’s 1883 issue of The Folk-lore Journal which documented various superstitions of the Swiss gathered by researchers in 1881. Same as the Germans, their birthday cake come with lit candles, one for each year of the celebrant’s life. The celebrant would then “solemnly blow out the candles one after another.”
So the next time you blow the candles on yet another delicious birthday cake, you’ll know how this ubiquitous ritual started and the underlying meanings behind it.
Feeling old yet?