Eating cake and blowing out candles is a common birthday tradition, but not many have questioned why this happens. In this short brief, we explore the history behind the tradition, so be sure to read till the end.
One moment everybody looks forward to during a birthday party is when the honored guest makes a wish and blows out the candles on the cake. But where did this tradition originate from? Here’s what we know.
Historians have credited the origin of birthday cakes to the Ancient Greeks. For them, it was a way to honor the birthday of Artemis, the goddess of the moon.
To please the goddess, they baked moon-shaped cakes and decorated them with candles to make them glow like the moon in the night sky. It was common practice to make offerings to the gods, and Artemis was one of the most widely honored ancient Greek deities.
The Greeks also believed the smoke of the candles would climb to the heavens, where Artemis, the daughter of Zeus, resided among other gods.
The Ancient Romans adopted and expanded on this tradition. They served cakes to honor the birthdays of government leaders and other influential citizens. In the centuries that passed, cakes became part of birthday celebrations of people other than gods and leaders. However, the expense of the ingredients made them more suited to wealthy households for many centuries.
Things changed in the 15th century when German bakeries began to sell one-layer cakes for customers’ birthdays. As part of the German Kinderfeste, which can be traced back to the Middle Ages, children were honored with a cake with lighted candles on top on the morning of their birthday.
However, unlike modern tradition, the candles were kept burning throughout the day until the cake was eaten after the evening meal.
German immigrants brought the custom with them to the New World in the 18th century and today, we still follow the custom.
This tradition was also brought to us by Germans. According to Kinderfeste tradition, a wish comes true if a child blows out all the candles in one breath and keeps the wish secret.
According to the Folk-Lore Journal, which was published in 1883 in Great Britain, some superstitions were involved with secret wish-making, and they have since spread to other countries.
A reference from the book states: “A birthday cake must have lighted candles arranged around it, one candle for each year of life. Before the cake is eaten, the person whose birthday it is should blow out the candles one after another.”
One of the earliest references to an American observing this tradition is in the March 1909 edition of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas. The magazine included a story that describes an early 20th-century birthday cake celebration:
“Three candles were stuck into the frosting of the cake and lit. Then, Bab cut a piece of cake for Ned, and Ted, and for Nursie, and then she blew out the candles and so her beautiful part was over.”
Birthday cakes and making wishes are traditions that came from other countries but are here to stay. Experts have called the cake a focal point on special days and the tradition of making wishes is just as relevant in today’s world. And we have the Germans to thank for everything.