Why do we blow out candles on birthday cakes? The answer involves Egyptian theocracy, the moon goddess, and (as for many holidays) the mixing of Christian and pagan tradition.
A tumblr post that went around the internet a while back drew attention to the strange, ritualistic custom that takes place during birthday celebrations:
“A small gathering of people huddle around an object on fire, chanting ritualistically a repetitive song in unison until the fire is blown out and a knife is stabbed into the object.”
The post laughingly called this a bit satanic. The real story of the birthday cake does have a little something to do with evil spirits—but more in the vein of warding them away with candlelight and merrymaking.
The origin of the birthday celebration itself must be put together piece by piece, drawing from different time periods and cultural traditions.
Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome
When a pharaoh was crowned in ancient Egypt, it was believed that he or she was transformed or reborn into a god. As early as 3,000 BCE, Egyptians celebrated the pharaoh’s coronation day as the birthday of a god. The Greeks may have inherited this custom of celebrating the birth of a god from the Egyptians. In many pagan belief systems, days of major change in the world or in a person’s life were thought to invite evil spirits into the world. When birthdays began to be celebrated for common people rather than just religious figures, a widespread belief was that evil spirits would visit people on their birthdays, so a party must be held to scare them away. Party-goers helped the birthday person feel cheerful, made a racket with noisemakers, and brought candles as a light in the darkness to ward away the sprits. These early birthday parties were thus considered a form of protection against evil.
But what’s a birthday party without some cake?
The candles came first. In ancient Greece, round cakes were baked in honor of Artemis, the moon goddess. Candles were placed on top to represent the glow of the moon. In Greece, as in many ancient societies, it was believed that the smoke of the candles would carry their prayers to heaven (in this case, to the moon).
The birthday cake came second. Ancient Romans may have been the first to celebrate birthdays of non-religious figures. Birthday celebrations included a sweet, bread-like pastry made from flour, nuts, honey, and yeast. (Cake and bread were largely interchangeable terms until more recently in history, and sugar in its many refined forms was not used in the Mediterranean until about the thirteenth century.) These honey cakes were typically found at birthday celebrations for members of the imperial family, private birthday celebrations for family and friends, and also at weddings. Fiftieth birthday celebrations merited a special pastry made from flour, grated cheese, honey, and olive oil.
Rome may have had the first birthday celebrations and birthday cakes for the common man, but it was really justthe common man. Blatant inequality between the sexes meant that women’s birthdays were not acknowledged until the twelfth century, hundreds of years later.
Early Christians considered these celebrations inappropriately pagan and did not observe birthdays until about the fourth century, when they began to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In medieval Germany, a sweet bread was baked in the shape of baby Jesus to commemorate His birth.
Sometime between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Germans began to celebrate a child’s birthday with a Kinderfeste party. In the morning, a cake called a Geburstagstorte would be topped with the number of candles corresponding to the child’s age, plus one candle representing the “light of life,” the hope for another year of life to come. The candles were lit and left to burn all day until after dinner, at which point the child would make a wish, try to blow out all the candles, and then eat the cake. Blowing out the candles signified that the birthday wishes would reach God as the smoke floated to the heavens—a highly Christian interpretation. At the Kinderfeste, the child was surrounded by family and friends, which was supposed to provide protection from evil spirits who might attempt to steal their soul—a relic of pagan superstition.
Though birthday cakes were mostly for children at this time, wealthy people of all ages also had fabulous birthday desserts. In 1746, traveler Andreas Frey wrote of Count Ludwig von Zinzindorf’s extravagant birthday celebration that featured a cake with candles: “There was a Cake as large as any Oven could be found to bake it, and Holes made in the Cake according to the Years of the Person’s Age, every one having a Candle stuck into it, and one in the Middle” (Frey, 15).
Let Them Eat Cake
Geburstagstorten were originally similar to the lightly sweetened Roman birthday pastries, but as time went on, it became more common to bake sweeter cakes with sugar. In the seventeenth century, multiple layers, icing, and decorations were introduced as well. This luxury dessert would only have been available to the upper class.
The Industrial Revolution changed everything, as mass production of sugar and other ingredients and utensils made birthday cakes available to almost everyone. Additionally, bakeries could now offer pre-made cakes at reasonable prices.
COVID-19 may have put a temporary damper on blowing all over a cake everyone is about to eat (and also on gathering in groups for a party), but that hasn’t stopped anyone from quarantine-baking some delicious cakes. It’s someone’s birthday somewhere, right?
Frey, Andreas. A True and Authentic Account of Andrew Frey. Containing the Occasion of His Coming among the … Moravians [&c.]. Transl, Volume 8. Oxford University, 1753.
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