Why We Celebrate Birthdays (and why there’s cake, candles and singing!)

Why We Celebrate Birthdays

Birthdays are one of those things we celebrate every year without thinking much about it. Most of us have been celebrating our birthday since childhood, even if the celebrations are small. Like everything, though, this tradition has to have started somewhere. Who started it and why? How did a party complete with birthday invitations, a birthday cake, candles, singing and presents come into it?

Recognising birthdays and counting age

It is likely that people have been noticing birthdays for as long as calendars have been around, although such early calendars weren’t always observing ‘years’ in the way that we count them today. Most people, however, were not in any position to celebrate such a frivolous occasion, so even once they began marking years there was not a focus on the fun trappings of birthdays.

Birthday parties and presents

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The first historical reference we have to a birthday party comes from the Bible. In the book of Genesis, mention is made of Pharaoh giving a feast for all his officials on his birthday. This birthday party would have fallen sometime around 3000 BCE! It is unclear, though, whether this was truly Pharaoh’s birthday, or the anniversary of his coronation (the day he was ‘born’ as a god).

This celebration of the birthdays of gods, religious figures and public figures was observed in many ancient civilizations, but birthdays for the rest of us really came into popularity in Rome. Citizens began to celebrate birthdays of friends and family members in addition to public figures. Those who could afford to would often celebrate milestone birthdays with fine foods such as olive oil and honey.

The Germans were the first people to really democratise birthday celebrations, with their ‘kinderfest’’ parties for children in the 1400s. Parties and gifts were a way of celebrating the child and making the occasion special.

Others began to celebrate birthdays out of superstition. With mortality high, it was thought that gathering family and friends to bestow good wishes, blessings and gifts on someone would help keep them alive and healthy for another year.

Birthday cake and blowing out candles

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In Ancient Greece, people celebrated the birthday of the moon goddess Artemis by baking round cakes (the shape of the moon) in her honour. Evidence indicates that lighted candles were added to make the cake glow like the moon on a dark night. In Germany during the Middle Ages children’s birthdays (‘Kinderfest’) were celebrated with a cake with candles which symbolised the light of life. One candle for each year of life became the tradition, along with an extra one to bode well for the year to come. It was also thought by some that the smoke from blowing out birthday candles would serve the dual purpose of warding off evil spirits, and carrying the individual’s wish to heaven to ensure it would come true.

The Industrial Revolution brought birthday cakes and candles to the masses, since ingredients and materials could be mass-produced which made them much more affordable.

Singing ‘Happy Birthday’

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There have been a number of disputes over the origins of the song, but one is generally accepted as the real deal: Two American sisters gave us the ‘Happy Birthday’ song, when it started its life in 1893 as a song called ‘Good Morning to All’. Patty Hill was the principal of a kindergarten, while her sister, Mildred, was a composer and pianist. They created the tune as a teaching aid to be easily remembered by young children. It is thought that the song was adapted to “Happy Birthday To You” in the classroom, being sung to students on their birthday. It began to spread through the South, the nation, and the world, being sung at birthday parties and soon in plays and film. Until 2015, however, the song was copyrighted and was frequently left out of films and other public performances to avoid hefty royalty fees! Now you can finally legally sing the song in public!

Next time you’re enduring the awkwardness of sitting there while your friends and family sing happy birthday, you can think about the tradition behind these things and the long parade of people in history who have had to feel just as awkward as you. And hey, at least thanks to the Germans you get cake at the end of it ;)

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