It comes once every year, one day of your life which you think is yours. Your birthday, that day of the year when you were born and started this beautiful journey of life. Everyone around you tries to make you feel special on this day, they wish you in different ways and get you exciting gifts. You pay back the gesture by giving your close ones a party or a treat, and how can we forget the cake cutting part? We all love it, don’t we? Balloons, candles, birthday gifts and amazing food. There is so much to love about this day.
But have you ever wondered why our birthday is so important? Why do we celebrate birthdays? Who started this tradition of celebrating birthdays? I was amazed when I read about how celebrating birthdays started as a tradition which still continues all around the world, though not many actually know the reason behind it. The tradition of celebrating birthdays goes long back in history, but earlier people only used to celebrate the birthdays of their gods and goddesses. In this article, I will be talking about how celebrating birthdays started and also its evolution into the modern birthday party that we celebrate.
How did it all start?
Referring to the Bible, the first birthday is believed to be celebrated somewhere around 3000 B.C. in ancient Egypt. The Pharaohs, who were crowned in ancient Egypt were believed to be transformed into Gods and their birthdays was the first to be celebrated ever in the history. However, James Hoffmeier, an Egyptologist, states that the celebration was not in reference to the day that specific God was born, but it was in celebration to the day they were transformed or coronated into a God. Well, how does it matter to us? It was celebrated as a birthday and this is where it all started.
The Greeks then joined the party with candles and cakes
Image source: Huffington Post
Not sure if they took the idea from the Egyptians, but even the Greeks used to celebrate the birthdays of their gods and goddesses. It is believed that Artemis, the Greek lunar goddess, was offered moon-shaped cakes as a show of tribute by the greeks. They also put candles on the cake trying to recreate the radiance of the moon, the candles gave the cake a glowing effect. Yes, that’s the story behind those candles and cakes. It was a way of recreating the moon, so the next time when you’re blowing the candles off your cake, just remember you are stealing the shine of the moon.
So, this is how we started celebrating birthdays of gods and goddesses and we still do that in almost every religion. But when did people start celebrating birthdays of common men and women? As per scholars and historians, the first instance of celebrating birthdays of non-religious figures belong to the Romans. They were the ones who started this culture of celebrating birthdays of common men, and I mean it when I say ‘men’ because they only celebrated birthdays of the male population, and not the other half. The Romans started celebrating the birthdays of their friends and families. There was also this tradition of baking a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese for those celebrating their 50th birthday. All of these were only for men, however, celebrating birthdays of females started around the 12th century.
Christians were skeptical, but they finally joined the party
Christians used to think that celebrating someone’s birthday is evil. One of the reasons behind this was their belief that humans are born with original sin, another reason was that the early instances of celebrating birthdays were related to pagan gods. But it was not for long that they could resist celebrating birthdays. Around the 4th century, they started celebrating the birthday of Jesus as Christmas. The church accepted this tradition in hopes of converting those who were already celebrating the Roman festival Saturnalia. But let’s not get into that, we are in a festive mood right now.
Celebrating birthdays was a common tradition all around the globe by the 18th century. Birthdays of children were most popular in Germany, and was celebrated with birthday cakes and candles. Eating sweet and yummy cakes when celebrating someone’s birthday makes sense, but have you ever wondered why do we blow off candles on our birthday? Now that I have made you think about it, I will answer it for you too. There are actually a number of theories on where and how did birthday candles came from.
A little history on candles
A tribute to Artemis: We have already talked about how the Greeks paid their tribute to their Lunar Goddess, Artemis with a moon shaped cake lit with candles. This is one of the most popular and accepted theories, however, let’s talk about the other theories.
Candles vs Evil Spirits: The Pagan story is the most interesting one. The Pagans had a belief that bad or evil spirits used to lurk on days of major changes, like birthdays. The Greeks used to believe that every individual has a spirit which comes along in this world at the time of his/her birth and always kept a watch on you. As per the book ‘The Lore of birthdays’, the spirits “had a mystic relation with the God on whose birthday the individual was born”.
The Kinderfest and a Grand Birthday celebration: There are two more stories which claim the origination of candles in birthday parties. The Kinderfest, a name for celebrating a child’s birthday in Germany also included cakes and candles. But, the children were allowed to celebrate their birthdays only in an auditorium-like space as the Germans believed that the adults would protect the children from evil spirits which might attempt to steal their souls in such a place. There would be a birthday cake with candles on it, there would be one candle for each year that they have been alive and one extra in hope to be alive for at least one more. Those times, unlike now, it was not common for people to bring gifts. Can you imagine, no gifts on birthdays? Anyways, if someone did bring gifts for the children, it was considered to be very auspicious.
Another story from Germany is that of the year 1746 when Count Ludwig Von Zinzindorf celebrated his birthday in a very lavish manner. The birthday party had a very large cake which had many holes indicating his age. Each hole has candles in it, one candle for every one year of his life, and also a candle in the middle of the cake.
The swiss superstition: The middle-class people of Switzerland were very superstitious. Researchers for the Folk-Lore Journal in 1881 stated an instance with a birthday cake lighted with a number of candles.
All these various instances around the world have played a part in us celebrating our birthdays with candles depicting our age, but who could have imagined that lighting candles as a tradition could have been started because it was supposed to fight against evil spirits. Not me, for sure.
Earlier, birthday celebrations were a thing only amongst the wealthy community as because the cost of the cake and its ingredients were very costly. But with the Industrial revolution, celebrating birthdays became common amongst the other societies as well. The required ingredients became cheaper and even the bakeries started selling cakes at a cheaper price owing to the heavy competition.
What about the famous “Happy Birthday to You” song?
It’s the most common song in any birthday party. And even the Guinness Book of World Records agrees, this song is known to be the most recognizable song in the English language. But do you know, this song started as an assembly song for school students. In the year 1893, two teachers from Kentucky called Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill wrote a song called ‘good Morning to All’. The tune of this song was so catchy that it quickly became popular across all of America. People gave it different versions, one of them being the famous “Happy Birthday to You” as published in a songbook in 1924 by Robert Coleman.
Now we know, how the celebration of birthday has started and evolved over the centuries. It’s a lot more than just celebrating the day you were born, but has a spiritual link to it too. The Pagans, the Greeks and the Germans had no idea that it will evolve into the type of birthday party we celebrate currently. Whatever the history maybe, there is no day more important than your birthday and celebrating it with your friends and family is always a special feeling. It is a day when we appreciate and celebrate the very sense of being alive and loved. Moreover, it is also a day when you take some time to think about your life, about where you stand in your career and where you are heading, about the various people in your life and how blessed you are to have them. Gifts, parties and all those other materialistic things aside, this is a day to also cherish the little things in your life.