Probably one of your earliest memories is of someone putting a paper hat with a super tight string on your head and placing a huge cake covered in candles in front of you while a room full of people sang to you and gave you presents. Now that you’re grown up with kids of your own, it may be more about picking the theme, food, decorations, and the goodie bags. The way we celebrate is different for everyone. But have you ever been curious about why we throw a party for someone’s birthday at all? Why is there a cake with candles? Why do we sing? Are gifts necessary? You may be curious to learn that its traditions and evolution are well rooted in global history.
The Earliest “Birthday” Party
Historians believe that the first one to ever celebrate a birthday was an Egyptian pharaoh, possibly the same one referenced in Genesis 40 of the Holy Bible. It wasn’t a typical birthday, however. Being crowned pharaoh meant being promoted to god-like status, which meant that the coronation was far more important than being born at all. This new “birth” then became a natural reason to celebrate and so the concept of a “birthday” party was born.
As civilization spread and the Roman Empire dominated the modern world, recognizing birthdays became more common. The Roman government even created special holidays for its most famous citizens. But the early days of celebrating a birthday was reserved strictly for men. Women had to wait until the 12th century before they were allowed to participate in such festivities.
Perhaps the largest and most popular Roman birthday party occurred once a year to honor their god of sowing, Saturn. The party, called Saturnalia, was originally a one-day event, but it eventually became a week-long celebration that included visiting family, exchanging gifts including beeswax candles, and masters trading places with their slaves (which is still a tradition in certain parts of the world).
The Christian church did not approve of this holiday and its pagan history, of course. The belief is that the church eventually decided sometime in the 4th century to create its own event by honoring the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christmas grew quickly in popularity, which caused the church to formally recognize the holiday with the hope of converting the pagan Roman revelers to Christianity.
A Cake and Candles with “One to Grow On”
The Greeks also celebrated their gods’ birthdays. One Greek tradition was to bake a special cake made of wheat, honey, olive oil, and cheese. The cake was sometimes baked into a lunar shape to honor the goddess Artemis. In reverence to her beauty, candles were put on the cake to make it glow.
Over time, the idea of baking a birthday cake spread throughout the world. It is believed that China was the first to bake a cake for a child’s first birthday, but it was the Germans in the 18th century that modernized the birthday cake as we know it today. German cakes typically included candles (perhaps in deference to the Greeks), one for each year the person had lived plus one more for good luck that he or she would survive the next year (“…and one to grow on”). The Germans were also the first to implement making a wish when you blow out the candles.
About 100 years later, birthday cakes were considered mainly reserved for the wealthy because the ingredients were too expensive for the common family. Advances in technology and machinery eventually helped to bring the cost of these ingredients down, and that allowed children’s birthday parties to once again become a common celebration. Stores and bakeries were even able to sell pre-made cakes thanks to mass production.
The Birthday Song Wasn’t Always for Birthdays
Singing to the birthday boy or girl is a fun tradition, but the original song wasn’t meant for birthdays. The tune that we all know was written in 1893 by Patty Hill and Mildred Hill and was originally meant to help school students begin their day. Their song, “Good Morning to You”, became very popular. Eventually, variations of the song were created including one for children’s birthday parties. Songwriter Robert Coleman added a few new words to the song and published it as “Happy Birthday to You,” the same song we all sing at every birthday party today. Some people have occasionally challenged its copyrights throughout the years, but the current legal ruling is that it is perfectly okay to sing this song at your kid’s next party without fear of being sued.
Families around the Arizona SE valley celebrate birthdays in different ways, but eating cake, blowing out candles and singing is an ongoing, global tradition. For your next birthday, you might even do as the Romans did and consider letting your kids trade places with you. However you celebrate, enjoy your time with your family as you look forward to a new year. And feel free to sing as much as you want. You’re safe.