We think of these traditions as inseparable rituals that must be done on a birthday because they are the fundamentals of a birthday celebration.
But why do we eat cake on birthdays? Additionally, why do we put candles on those same cakes and blow them out? Where do these traditions come from?
The Greek goddess Artemis was the goddess of the moon, chastity, and the hunt. The Greeks had celebrations in her name, in which they would make round cakes and light candles on them to symbolise the moon. The round shape would obviously represent the full moon, while the candles would represent the light of our nearest celestial neighbour.
But the Greeks didn’t get the idea for such celebrations. Believe it or now, they got it from the Egyptians, and more specifically, through their crowning ceremony for a pharaoh.
For ancient Egyptians, the crowning of a pharaoh represented the pharaoh becoming a god. Hence, the crowning ceremony was widely celebrated. The Greeks borrowed this idea of large celebrations in honour of a person or a god.
There is some speculation that before the emergence of “birthday parties”, the Romans used to bake cakes in order to celebrate the birthdays of people more elevated in society. However, the history of how birthdays have become “celebrations” with cake begins much later.
It is thought to have originated in Germany, around 1400-1500 AD.
In Germany the, “Kinderfest/Kinderfeste” was a celebration for children. The word “Kinder” in German means children. Hence, as the name suggests, it was a festival for the children. The Germans used to believe that children were highly susceptible to any harm that might arise from evil spirits on their birthdays. Hence, on their birthdays, cakes were baked in the morning and the tradition of putting as many candles as the child’s age (plus one!) was invented here. The additional candle represented the parents’ hope that their child would live one more year.
The cakes with the candles were readied in the morning and, as soon as a candle would go out, it would immediately be replaced by another.
This process would go on until the night, when the child was finally told to blow out all the candles at once. This was done because it was believed that the candles helped transfer the child’s wishes to god, while blowing them out all at once makes both the wish and the child’s connection to god stronger!