Why Do We Put Candles on a Birthday Cake?

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Candles on a cake are an integral part of modern Western birthday celebrations.
Candles on a cake are an integral part of modern Western birthday celebrations. (Image: birthday cake image by Renata Osinska from Fotolia.com)

Birthday candles have a long history in Western culture. No one is exactly sure why we put candles on birthday cakes but historians can trace the tradition back to the ancient Greeks. Most historians hold that putting candles on birthday cakes is related to the use of candles in Western religions, both Christian and ancient.

Ancient Greeks

Most historians agree that the custom of placing lighted candles on cakes started in ancient Greece. The Greeks made honey cakes that were round like the full moon and place them on the altar of their Moon Goddess, Artemis. They placed a candle in the middle of the cake, which made it appear to glow like the moon.

The Greeks offered cakes with candles in the center to their Moon Goddess.
The Greeks offered cakes with candles in the center to their Moon Goddess. (Image: moon image by Sebastian Glapinski from Fotolia.com)

Germans in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, Germans celebrated birthdays with a type of sweetened dough bread that was made in the shape of baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes. Geburtstagorten, which is a much sweeter layer cake, was also used for birthdays. Germans were excellent candle makers and one large candle was placed in the middle of the cake to represent “the light of life." The large candle often had 12 markings meant to symbolize Years 1 to 12. The candle was burned only long enough to mark a person's age that year.

Kinderfests

Germans are credited with the widespread celebration of children’s yearly birthdays, which they called “Kinderfests.” In 1799, Goethe referred to the practice of using very small candles equal to the child’s age to light a cake. Many of the common birthday symbols originated in Germany, such as parties, cakes and blowing out candles.

Children's birthdays have long been celebrated in Germany.
Children's birthdays have long been celebrated in Germany. (Image: birthday cake image by Cherry-Merry from Fotolia.com)

Reasons for Candles

The lighting of candles and altar fires as a symbol of reverence toward God is part of both pagan and Christian beliefs. The smoke from the flames is believed to take wishes up to heaven. In ancient times people prayed over open fires because they believed the smoke would take their wishes up to God. From this belief the practice of making a wish and blowing out candles developed.

Today many people stop to make a wish before they blow out their candles.
Today many people stop to make a wish before they blow out their candles. (Image: birthday cake image by Pali A from Fotolia.com)

Modern Rituals

Today in many cultures worldwide, people celebrate birthdays with a cake topped with lighted candles. Most use the candles to represent how old a person is turning, for example a 2-year old turning 3 will have three candles on the cake. However, for older people often only a few candles are places on the cake to represent the birthday, for example six candles for a 60th birthday. Many people make a wish before they blow out the candles on their cake. It is believed that if you blow out all of your candles in one breath, your birthday wish will come true. In some cultures it is bad luck to blow out the candles until after the evening meal is eaten.

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