Birthday Cakes and Candles

Happy birthday to you!

My mother always made me a German Chocolate birthday cake, my favorite as a child. Now, my friend Victor makes me a sugar-free cake since I have diabetes. I thought I’d look into the history of these delicious delights. The Romans baked the first birthday cakes made of flour, nuts, yeast, and honey to celebrate weddings and the occasional 50th birthday.

In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany began to market one-layer cakes for customers’ birthdays. During the 17th century, the birthday cake took on its contemporary form with multiple layers, icing, and decorations. These cakes were only for the wealthiest families.

The Germans would celebrate children’s birthdays with cake, calling the celebration Kinderfest. In the 18th century, food and baking utensils became more accessible and therefore affordable. With that, the price of cakes went down significantly and the number of cakes produced went up considerably.

Why Candles?

The Greeks would make round cakes to honor Artemis[1], the goddess of the moon. The lit candles on the cake represented the glow of the moon, and the smoke from the candles carried their prayers and wishes to the Gods who lived in the skies.

The use of fire in certain rites dates back to the creation of altars. Birthday candles are said to hold symbolic power. In the past, it was believed that evil spirits visited people on their birthdays and that, to protect the person whose birthday it was from evil, people must surround the individual and make them merry. Party-goers made noise to scare away evil spirits.

A reference to the tradition of blowing out the candles was documented in Switzerland in 1881. Researchers for the Folk-Lore Journal recorded various “superstitions” among the Swiss middle class. One statement depicted a birthday cake as having lighted candles that correspond to each year of life. These candles were required to be blown out, individually, by the person who is being celebrated. Of course, when you’re my age this cake would be a fire hazard!

Blowing Out The Candles

Do you have a germophobic friend that obsesses over blowing out the candles on a cake? On average blowing out the candles increases the bacteria on the cake top 14 times. Our mouths are teeming with bacteria, most of them not harmful. If birthday cakes significantly contributed to the spread of deadly diseases, it’d be obvious by now given the ubiquity of the practice. You should probably avoid the cake if the candle-blower were clearly sick, but that’s just common sense.

It’s not a big health concern in my perspective. In reality if you did this 100,000 times, then the chance of getting sick would probably be very minimal.

Paul Dawson – Professor of Fodd Safety at Clemson University

  1. In ancient Greek mythology and religion, Artemis is the goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, nature, vegetation, childbirth, care of children, and chastity. She was heavily identified with Selene, the Moon, and Hecate, another Moon goddess, and was thus regarded as one of the most prominent lunar deities in mythology, alongside the aforementioned two. She would often roam the forests of Greece, attended by her large entourage, mostly made up of nymphs, some mortals, and hunters. The goddess Diana is her Roman equivalent. [Back]

Further Reading


The Atlantic
Food & Wine

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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