As I quickly approach my 30th birthday, I got to wondering what the origins of the birthday cake were.
Birthday cakes have been a part of birthday celebrations in Western European countries since the middle of the 19th century and over time spread to the Americas. However, the link between cakes and birthday celebrations dates back to ancient Roman history where flat round “cakes” made with flour containing nuts, leavened with yeast, and sweetened with honey were occasionally served at special birthdays.
However, it wasn’t until the 15th century, when industrious bakers in Germany got the idea of marketing one-layer cakes to customers for birthdays and not only for their weddings that the modern birthday cake was born.
It wasn’t until the 17th century, though, that the birthday cake took on its contemporary form. It was during this period that more elaborate cakes began becoming popular. These cakes possessed many of the aspects of contemporary birthday cakes, such as multiple layers, icing, and decorations. These cakes were only available to the very wealthy and did not become accessible to the common man until the industrial revolution when the spread of more materials and goods made such luxuries more affordable.
So what about the candles? There are several different theories about how they came into play but as the German’s first introduced birthday cakes to the mass market I’ll just discuss the German theory here and leave you to look up the Greek, Pagan, and Swiss theories.
One of the first mentions of the use of candles in birthday cakes was in regards to a birthday celebration held in honor of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. It is said that for this celebration the largest oven available was called into use to create a humongous cake in which holes were made, one for each of the Count’s 52 years and an extra one in the middle. Each hole received a candle and when it was time for dessert the Count’s entire livery in full regalia entered, led by the majordomo. He carried a generous-sized torte with colorful flaming candles that began to melt and threatened to burn down.
The custom of candles in a birthday cakes also appears in birthday celebrations for German children called Kinderfests, where a candle was placed on the cake for each year of the child’s life, so that the number of candles on top of the cake would represent the age which they had reached; sometimes a birthday cake would have some added candles indicating upcoming years.
This tradition as well as other birthday traditions we follow today mirror each other in the use of candles, cakes, friends, and family. German children were taken to something similar to an auditorium, where they were free to celebrate another year in an atmosphere where the Germans believed the adults could protect the child from the evil spirits attempting to steal their soul. And although it was still not traditional at the time, if someone did bring a gift for the child, it was seen as a sign of good fortune for the year ahead.