One of the traditions that has been spread worldwide is the birthday cake with lit candles. This once in a year event has an unknown origin, but there are some theories that may explain why we place candles on a cake and what the meaning of blowing them out is.
Bright Side researched the possible origins of the birthday cake and how the custom of blowing out the candles came to be.
There are stories that say the tradition started in Germany during the 18th century, to celebrate children’s birthdays as a way to protect kids’ souls. Some others claim that blowing out candles comes from a cult that is related to the goddess Artemis, in ancient Greece, to commemorate her birth.
The way of celebrating a birthday has varied according to cultures and times. However, all of them have a similar format — which is to place one or several candles on a cake or a sweet snack. The number of candles represents the number of years lived by the person being honored, who must blow them out to fulfill a wish or to end the celebration.
In the past, sweet cakes were baked for the birthdays of certain types of people.
The use of birthday cakes was customary in Ancient Rome, but they were presented in the form of a flat, circular sponge cake. It was not until the 15th century, in Germany, that bakeries began to produce single-layer cakes to celebrate customers’ birthdays.
During the 17th century, multi-layer cakes and icing appeared for people from the upper classes. After the industrial revolution, its production spread to all social classes. And in the mid-19th century, it became part of the birthday celebrations in several European countries.
The blowing out of candles and birthday celebrations were exclusive to Greek gods and heroes.
In ancient Egypt, birthday parties were exclusive to royalty. This custom was transferred to the Greeks, who celebrated the birthdays of their gods. The most popular celebration was that of the goddess Artemis, where every sixth day of the month, a cake decorated with lit candles was baked to worship her. Later, the ritual also became part of the birthday celebrations of Greek heroes, nobles, and aristocrats.
The ritual of burning candles can be associated with certain ancient rites, which used fire to ward off evil spirits. It was thought that these spirits visited people during their birthdays, so they had to entertain them with joy and make noise to protect them from all evil spirits.
Germans adopted blowing out candles at children’s birthdays to protect their spirits.
In 18th century Germany, the custom of blowing out candles to celebrate children’s birthdays became widespread. Every time a child turned one year older, he or she was taken to an auditorium-like space so that adults could protect them from evil spirits.
According to a document written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that described a birthday cake, the number of candles on it would represent the age of the person being honored.
There is also a book from 1753, which describes that candles were placed, lit, on the edges of a cake, surrounding a single candle inserted in the center.
Blowing out candles is also accompanied by other beliefs and customs.
For the Swiss in 1883, each candle represented one more year of life. However, these were not to be blown out all at once, but blown out one by one individually, until they were all extinguished.
Nowadays, in many countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, it is a tradition to make a wish before blowing out the candles. But for the wish to be granted, the guest must blow them out all at once.
The elaboration or format of the cakes may vary according to the region. Thus, in China, they prepare a bun made with flour and wheat that is filled with lotus paste. In Korea, they replace the cake with seaweed soup. And, in Holland, they prepare fruit tarts with whipped cream.
What about you? Do you know of any customs related to cake and candles in your region that you would like to share in the comments? Which common traditions originated in your country?