A birthday is one of the most cherished days of the year for any soul, regardless of their age, likes, dislikes, etc. And why not? There is so much to love about this day. The candles, lights, balloons, birthday gifts and wishes from your near and dear ones that make you feel like you are on cloud nine. But there is one more indispensable part of any birthday, the Cake. I am sure that even if you do not do anything special, you definitely cut a cake because a birthday without a cake is so incomplete. But have you ever wondered as to why do we cut a cake on our birthday or where did this tradition originate from?
As per the classical Roman culture, on occasion of a special birthday or a wedding ceremony, the cakes were occasionally served as a gesture. These cakes were made in flat circles with the use of nuts and flour which were sweetened with honey and leavened with yeast. During the 15th century AD, the bakeries in Germany created a new tradition by introducing and marketing one-layered cakes for the birthdays for its customers barring the cliched myth that a cake can only be cut on the occasion of a wedding. And that is how a modern birthday cake was born.
This tradition went on for quite a while, and then later in the 17th century, the contemporary birthday cakes got introduced. These birthday cakes came in an elaborated form and design like multi-layered, icing, and other decorations that gave these birthday cakes a more refreshing look and that got the ball rolling. But sadly, these cakes were only available to the richer section of the society marking a distinction between the rich and the poor. After the Industrial Revolution, these birthday cakes became accessible to the lower class as well, owing to the abundance of the ingredients required for the production of cakes. The Western European countries introduced birthday cakes as a part of their birthday celebration in the middle of the 19th century, which was a result of the ancient Roman culture.
With the coming of birthday cakes as a tradition, the candles on the cake followed suit. There are multiple theories which try to explain the origin and significance of the ritual of blowing the candles. According to the Greek origin story, there is one theory that explains the tradition of placing the candles on the birthday cake is connected to the ancient Greeks. The early Greeks had the tradition of lighting the candles to honour the birth of goddess Artemis on the sixth day of every lunar month.
The Pagans, though, have their different sets of beliefs. As per their belief, the use of fire as a ritual dates back to when the altars were created. These birthday candles have a symbolic power. In history, it was believed that spirits visited people on their birthdays and so the family members and friends surround the birthday person and make the person merry and protect him/her from the evil spirit around. They also make noises to shoo away the spirit.
The history of the candles on cakes can get tracked down from the 18th century from the birthday celebration of German children, also known as kinderfest. These celebrations also have candles on the cakes that are meant to fight the evil spirits lurking around. The children were taken to an auditorium-like place where the adults protected the children from the evil spirits that might attempt to steal their soul. In those times, people did not bring gifts rather they merely brought best wishes for the birthday person. However, if some guest brought a gift along, it would get symbolised as a good omen. Later in time, people started bringing flowers as a birthday gift.
Another example of the tradition of blowing candles was documented in Switzerland in 1881. Researchers of the leading newspaper of Switzerland recorded the various superstitious beliefs of the Swiss middle class. One of which is that they believed to have the same number of candles on the cake corresponding to each year of life. These candles were supposed to be blown out by the person whose birthday is being celebrated. With the juxtaposition of all these theories from different countries, the ritual of blowing candles placed on the birthday cake came into existence. In many cultures, it is also believed that the birthday person makes a wish before blowing out the candles.
There is no standard for birthday cakes and relevant celebrations, although the Happy Birthday song was sung by the gathering at the time of the cake cutting ceremony by the English speaking countries, the others countries sing an equivalent song in their language for making the birthday person merry. The song “Happy Birthday to You” became popular in the early 1900s after which the phrase Happy Birthday started getting written on the birthday cakes. The variations of the birthday song and the associated rituals exist in different countries.
The Birthday cake is often decorated with small candies, special holdings and the main job is done by the icing on the cake. With the help of the icing, you can get flowers and ribbons made on the cake for giving it an attractive look. It is believed that to represent the joy of sharing and a sense of belongingness, the cake is shared among all the guests attending the party. Like in some countries, the cake can also be served with other sweets like ice cream to add to the delight. Traditionally, it was also believed that the Birthday Person makes a wish before blowing out the candles and the wish only turns out to be true if all the candles get extinguished in a single breath. Funny, isn’t it?
There are many variations in birthday cakes that are eaten around in the world on birthdays. The Chinese birthday cakes are the shòu bāo or shòu táo bāo which is a lotus-paste-filled bun made up of wheat flour and its shape and colour resemble a peach. Each guest is served with a small shòu bāo instead of serving one large cake. Doesn't it sound yummy? Birthday children are served fruit pies with greetings written on it in Western Russia. The Swedish people have a different type of birthday cake which is made like a pond cake with a topping of marzipan and is decorated with their national flag. In India, people residing in villages don't often celebrate their birthdays but people in towns and cities do similar to that in Western countries.
We hope that more and more people get accustomed to this tradition because it is one’s birthday when he/she should be made to feel special in a big way and the least that can be done for anyone to feel special is to make them cut a cake which is such an old tradition continuing from centuries. It is likely that people find this tradition a mandate for birthdays, no wonder why you and I have been cutting cakes, making wishes and blowing candles on our birthdays ever since childhood hoping that all those wishes turn true and we encounter a cherished year ahead because that is the beauty of a birthday. So many funny and weird beliefs have helped us design our birthdays in a good manner. Don’t you think that the structure of birthday party will keep evolving through time according to our comfort level? I will leave this to you to ponder over.