Why Do We Put Candles on Birthday Cake?
We have been celebrating birthdays lately (and have another coming up soon), so we have had our dining room “lit up” on a couple occasions. With the family getting older, the room keeps getting brighter and there is less room on the cake. (Maybe we need bigger cakes.) Having a cake with candles is something we have always done, but never really considered why.
A Popular theory of the origin of birthday candles is that the tradition dates back to that of the ancient Greeks of placing candles at the center of a round cake to make it glow like the moon, as an offering to Artemis. The belief was that the smoke carried thoughts and wishes up to the gods.
Using candles to commemorate a birthday goes back at least to the Kinderfest of the 15th century. The belief was that children were especially susceptible to evil spirits on their birthdays, so candles were lit all day, to carry good wishes to god, while friends gathered close to protect the children. A single lit candle was put on the cake to represent the “light of life.” The cake was then dessert after the evening meal.
An occurrence of an adult birthday being celebrated with candles is documented in 18th century Germany. In 1746, there was a birthday festival in honor of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Marienborn, Germany Andrew Frey described the party in detail and mentions, “there was a Cake as large as any Oven could be found to bake it, and Holes made in the Cake according to the Years of the Person’s Age, every one having a Candle stuck into it, and one in the Middle.” In America, the 1871 edition of The Ladies Repository described a birthday celebration in which the family sang hymns to the birthday child around a cake with candles that gradually went out during singing. Starting in 1880s entrepreneurs started making and selling decorative rose shaped birthday candle holders to prevent wax from dripping on the cake. An American newspaper also detailed events in which party-goers would blow out the candles, each making a wish for the birthday child who did not blow out any.
1799 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 50th birthday also featured a cake with candles. “When it was time for dessert, the prince’s entire livery in full regalia entered… he carried a generous-sized torte with colorful flaming candles- that began to melt and threatened to burn down, instead of there being enough room for candles indicating upcoming years.”
Like many other German traditions, celebrating a birthday with cake and candles made its way to the US. A 1899 American style guide emphasizes the importance of the birthday cake with “as many tiny colored candles set about its edge as the child is years old.” By 1921, manufacturers were marketing boxes of little candles, shortly followed by the addition of mini candle holders.
Though traditional birthday candles are short, thin, tapers, today there are endless options. Candles can be found in many shapes for any interest (think animals, wine bottles, sporting equipment, etc), letters to spell out words, extra-long skinny tapers, sparkler candles, the ever annoying trick candles that reignite themselves after seeming to be blown out and even some that are enclosed in holders that play music and expand.
Today it is common for a birthday cake to have candles either with the number of candles that corresponds to a person’s age (or one extra, for good luck or to represent the year ahead) or maybe numbered candles representing one’s new age. After singing the “Happy Birthday” song, the birthday person makes a wish and blows out the candles. If all go out in one breath, it is said, the wish will come true.
No matter that the reasons have changed, putting candles on a cake is just plain fun.