Ever stop to think why we celebrate our birthdays, and how the cake and ice cream, singing, parties, gifting, and rites of passage in which we participate came to be?
Why Do We Have Cake & Candles?
Said to be rooted in ancient Egypt and tied to coronations (which automatically made a mere mortal into a god), the Greeks later expanded upon the celebration theme by placing candles on moon-shaped honey cakes made for the lunar goddess Artemis. Lighted candles signaled a prayer was being sent. Some subscribe to a German origin for birthday candles, however, as one would be placed in the middle of bread or cake baked into the shape of baby Jesus, symbolizing the light of life.
As for blowing out the candles, the Greeks believed rising smoke took one’s prayers and wishes up to the sky, where the gods lived. In Europe, birthday candles were often kept burning all day both to celebrate and ward off evil spirits.
Early Christians considered birthday acknowledgments pagan in nature, as people were born in original sin, until the birth of Jesus, of course. In Medieval times, common Christians celebrated their individual saint’s days – as they may have been named after one – though if you came from privilege, you celebrated your actual birthday.
Let’s Have A Party!
Birthday parties as a tradition are said to have evolved centuries ago in Europe, where superstition proffered evil spirits were particularly attracted to people on their birthdays. Friends would be sure to visit, revel, extend good wishes, laugh a lot, and surely make a lot of noise – all to scare off any evil that may be lurking about.
In Judaism, a boy’s bar mitzvah, or rite of passage into adulthood, coincides with his 13th birthday, with a girl’s bat mitzvah (a relatively modern practice of the past 50 years) takes place when she turns either 12 or 13.
In lieu of a 12th or 13th birthday, India’s Hindu Brahmin males have a grand thread ceremony called Upanayana. There, the celebrant takes a blessed thread and wears it, symbolizing his coming of age. Also in India, a child’s head is shaved on his or her first birthday, while being held close to a special fire. The ritual is said to cleanse the baby of any evil in past lives, symbolizing a renewal of the soul.
In China, a newborn is considered age one, as the use of zeros in calculating age is not practiced. In that manner, a 12-month-old is age two.
In the annals of birthday history, the Germans are credited with initiating the acknowledgment of a child’s birthday, called kinderfeste – meaning children and festival or party.
That Famous Song
As for celebrating with one of the most sung songs in history, sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, who grew up in the progressive education movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and very often defied the more constricting roles of women of their time, wrote and published a catchy little tune together in 1893 called Good Morning to All.
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.
Sometime later, the lyrics were altered to create what we all know as “Happy Birthday to You.”
Beth Herman is a freelance writer with interests in healthy living and food, family, animal welfare, architecture and design, religion, and yoga. She writes for a variety of national and regional publications, institutions, and websites.