Why A Birthday Cake? Why Candles?

Learn the history behind birthday parties as well as where these common birthday traditions come from.

Happy Birthday! Did you know that the first birthday parties were reserved for royalty? Records were not kept of common people, so birthdays were not remembered. Here are some more interesting facts behind the traditions we practice when celebrating birthdays:

The First Birthday?

One of the first birthday’s recorded — Pharoah’s — is described in the Book of Genesis. The celebration featured a great household feast, with all servants and family invited, and prisoners were released from jail during this special day.

The Greeks were among the first to keep birth records for everyone — for taxes and military service —  but only important heads of family celebrated their birthdays.

By the 12th century, though, Christians routinely kept birth records and named their children after a patron saint, often the one honored on the date of the child’s birth. This custom led to the celebration of a name’s day rather than the day of birth for early Christians. A child named for St. Patrick celebrated the saint’s feast day, March 17th.

Why Candles?

To the ancient Greeks, birthday candles had special magic for granting wishes. That’s why children today make a wish before blowing out the candles.

Why Cake?

Birthday cakes also started with the ancients. Roman Emperor Hadrian sent cakes by special messengers to invited guests unable to attend his birthday celebration.

Sending Cards

Birthday cards first turned up in England and America about 1850, shortly after the first Christmas cards.

Have A Party!

Birthday parties started with the German kinderfeste, or children’s festival. In Holland, children make up a verlanglijst, excitedly jotting down all the presents they want.

The Russians have pie almost as often as cake, Icelanders go for canned fruit, and the Danes hang a flag out the window on a birthday.

However it’s celebrated, the birthday party has become an event that brings on a feeling of royalty. And, in that sense, the most ancient birthday tradition lives on.

This article was published by the staff at Farmers' Almanac. Do you have a question or an idea for an article? Contact us!

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