Why Do We Celebrate Birthdays with Cake?

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The modern birthday cake is a culmination of past traditions.
The modern birthday cake is a culmination of past traditions. (Image: birthday cake image by Pali A from Fotolia.com)

In Western culture a birthday cake is defined as a pastry or dessert that is served to a person on their birthday. They are usually decorated with a person’s name or designed to fit that person’s personality and interests. The word is of Scandinavian origin, related to the Swedish kaka and Danish kage.

Modern cake celebrations have been a long culmination of various traditions from different cultures from all over the world.

Western Origins of Cake

The origin of birthday cakes are connected with the seasonal cycle and in celebration of their gods. The ancient Greeks made round or moon-shaped honey cakes and took it the temple of Artemis, the moon goddess.

During the Middle Ages Germans used sweetened dough and shaped the cake like baby Jesus swaddled in cloth. This cake was to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Over time, the tradition transitioned into commemorating the birth of young children called Kinderfest.

The ancient Celts baked Beltane cakes to celebrate the sun. At the Beltane festival the Celts would roll the cakes down a hill to imitate solar movement. This would ensure the continued movement of the sun.

Ancient Romans celebrated three different type of birthdays: Private celebrations among friends and family, the birthdays of cities and temples of their gods, and the birthdays of past and present emperors of members of the imperial family.

Eastern Origins of Cake

The Chinese made cakes to honor the seasonal cycle of the moon and honor their lunar goddess Heng O. Instead of candles, they would stamp the image of Heng O on top. In contemporary Chinese culture, people still make moon cakes out of rice and eat them at the Harvest Moon festival every Aug. 15.

The Russians celebrated the sun by paying their respects to the deity Maslentias by making thin pancakes that are called sun cakes. Maslentiaswas the daughter of Father Frost, who brought winter, but unlike her father, she brought warmth and happiness. People would eat the sun cakes to warm their hearts and symbolically keep spring in their hearts forever.

Shape of Cakes

The roundness of the cake symbolized the cyclical nature of life. This could incorporate the seasons and also the beginning of a new year. Many would bake their cakes to symbolize the moon or the sun.

Another reason for the shape of cakes comes from the technology of baking at the time. In ancient times breads and cakes were made by hand and were typically fashioned into round balls and baked on hearthstones or shallow panes. This in turn shaped the basic appearance of the cake. As the technology progressed, cakes can now can be baked in all different shapes and sizes.

Traditions of Cakes

Agricultural societies prepared the cakes using grains and fruits from the soil which symbolized their appreciation and worship of their gods. For example, the English would bake cake using caraway seeds which were symbolic of the wheat grains sown during the harvest. This seed was believed to have strengthened the workers throughout the season, and then would be baked in cake and eaten during a harvest festival to celebrate the hard work of the harvest.

During the medieval times, the English would bake cakes with symbolic objects cooked inside. These objects include coins and thimbles were mixed into the batter, and the person who found these coins would find wealth, and the person who found the thimble would always be single.

Birthday Candle History

Traditionally, birthday candles were used to bring birthday wishes to the gods. The Greeks would prayer over the flames and believed that the smoke carried their wishes up to the gods. Greeks also placed candles on top of the cake to make the cake glow like the moon god, Artemis. The Germans would burn a large candle that had 12 lines and numbers, which marked the 12 months of the year. This candle represented the Light of Life and was used for religious practices.

Recently, candles are used to equal a number of years a person has been alive and is placed on the cake. Traditionally, a person is sung to and they blow out their candles and make a wish. Modern superstitions state that a person must blow out all the candles to receive their wish, and that a person cannot tell their wish to anyone or it will not come into fruition.

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References

  • Tamra Andrews. Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food In World Mythology (ABC-CLIO: 2000).
  • H.E. Jacob and Peter Reinhart. "Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History" (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007)
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