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All about birthday cakes


Photo by Will Clayton licensed CC BY 2.0

Nothing beats a good, rich, sugary birthday cake on that special day. But why do we celebrate with them, put candles on them, and sing over them? Let’s find out.

Let Them Eat Cake

single layer cake

Photo by Fiona licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

During the 8th century, Romans celebrated the birthdays of friends and family with a round, flat honey cake that was made of wheat flour, grated cheese, olive oil, and sweetened with honey. This tradition of celebrating birthdays with cake continued for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1400s that birthday cakes similar to the ones we enjoy today came to be. That’s when bakeries in Germany began selling one-layer cakes made from sweetened dough for children’s birthdays. By the 17th century, birthday cakes with several layers, icing, and decorations were available. Since the ingredients were expensive, only the very wealthy could afford to buy them. In the early 1800s, baking ingredients became more affordable, and this allowed people to begin making birthday cakes at home. 

Why the Candles?

blowing out candles on a cake

Photo by Rich Renomeron licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The tradition of putting candles on a cake is believed to have begun with the ancient Greeks. They would offer moon-shaped cakes to Artemis, the goddess of the moon. And to symbolize the moon’s glowing light, the Greeks lit candles and placed them on the cake. As for why we blow out birthday candles and make a wish, this likely got its start in ancient times. Many cultures believed that smoke carried your thoughts and prayers to the heavens. Today, if you’re able to blow out all of the candles on your cake in one breath, it’s said the wish you make will come true. Well, it’s worth a try!

Why the Singing?

Happy Birthday card

Photo by Carol VanHook licensed CC BY 2.0

You’re guaranteed to hear a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” whenever a birthday cake is brought out. This song was written by two sisters from Kentucky, U.S.A., in 1893, Mildred and Patty Hill. Their original song “Good Morning to All” was first sung in Patty’s kindergarten class. It had the same tune as the birthday song you know, just with different words. As time went on, the song began to be sung in schools throughout Kentucky. Around 1910, the words of the song were changed to focus on birthdays. Of course, the melody stayed the same. The song soon became popular across the country, and it began to appear in movies and on the radio. It eventually reached the point where just about everyone knew it. Today, “Happy Birthday to You” is the most frequently sung song in the English language.