Are we feeling a little sensitive about that five-alarm fire that is blazing atop the buttercream frosting? Alas, me too. Join the club!!
Isn't it funny how much we all, as children, look forward to celebrating our birthdays and how we all grow to dread them as the years go by? Well, take heart- the tradition of lighting birthday candles on cakes is way older than you.
The custom actually dates back to the ancient Greeks. It all began as an offering to Artemis, goddess of the moon. The Greeks baked round honey cakes and topped them with tapers (long, slender, wax candles). These cakes were placed on the altar of Artemis's temple. When lit, the round cakes looked like -you guessed it- full, glowing moons.
Back then, people believed the smoke from the tapers carried their thoughts up to the gods (hence, all the sacrificial fires). These days, we associate lighting and blowing out candles with making a wish. But just when did candle-topped cakes become an essential part of the birthday party?
Many historians trace the modern use of candles on cakes to Kinderfest, a German birthday celebration for children that dates to the 15th century. In those days, people believed that children were particularly susceptible to evil spirits on their birthdays, so friends gathered around protectively, lighting candles on cakes to carry good wishes up to god. It was customary for the candles to remain lit all day, and the cake was served after the evening meal.
By the 18th century, birthday cakes and candles had taken on a more festive feel. A 1799 letter by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (one of the great figures of world literature) survives and is one of the first documented "birthday candles" references. It recounts Goethe's 50th birthday:
“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.”
German birthday cake tradition eventually made it over to the United States. As an 1899 American style guide directed: “At birthday parties, the birthday cake with as many tiny colored candles set about its edge as the child is years old, is, of course, of special importance."
By 1921, American candle manufacturers started advertising boxes of little candles in mixed colors. An a few years later, people all over the United States could order cake candles and candle holders from the Sears-Roebuck catalog.
But you're way too young to remember that. Right?
*Trivia: Did you know that most men's birthday wishes concern themselves i.e. getting a job, getting a raise, making a hole-in-one on the golf course, etc. Interestingly, a majority of women make their birthday wish about their family or their personal relationships (boyfriends, husbands, children, etc.).