A chocolate buttercream birthday cake
The birthday cake has been an integral part of the birthday celebrations in western European countries since the middle of the 19th century, which extended to Western culture. Certain rituals and traditions, such as singing of birthday songs, associated with birthday cakes are common to many Western cultures. The Western tradition of adding lit candles to the top of a birthday cake originates in 18th-century Germany. However, the intertwining of cakes and birthday celebrations stretches back to the ancient Romans. The development of the birthday cake has followed the development of culinary and confectionery advancement. While throughout most of Western history, these elaborate cakes in general were the privilege of the wealthy, birthday cakes are nowadays common to most Western birthday celebrations. Around the world many variations of the birthday cake, or rather the birthday pastry and sweets, exist. There is no universal rule about the shape and color of a birthday cake – in recent years for example cakes take the form of animals or have high-quality drawings on them in order to fit the party theme.
In classical Roman culture, 'cakes' of flat rounds made with flour containing nuts, leavened with yeast, and sweetened with honey were occasionally served at special birthdays, but more often at weddings as in Ancient Greece.
In early Europe, the words for cake and bread were virtually interchangeable; the only difference being that cakes were sweet while bread was not. In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany conceived the idea of marketing one-layer cakes for customers' birthdays as well as for only their weddings, and thus the modern birthday cake was born. During the 17th century, the birthday cake took on more or less its contemporary form. However, these elaborate cakes, which possessed many aspects of contemporary cakes (such as multiple layers, icing, and decorations), were only available to the very wealthy. Birthday cakes became more and more proletarianized as a result of the industrial revolution, as materials and tools became more advanced and more accessible.
Contemporary rituals and traditions
The cake, or sometimes a pastry or dessert, is served to a person on their birthday. In contemporary Western cultures, the birthday person blows out the candles on the cake after those celebrating have sung the birthday song.
The service of a birthday cake is often preceded by the singing of "Happy Birthday to You" in English speaking countries, or an equivalent birthday song in the appropriate language of that country. In fact, the phrase "Happy Birthday" did not appear on birthday cakes until the song "Happy Birthday to You" was popularized in the early 1900s. Variations on birthday song rituals exist. For example, in Uruguay, party guests touch the birthday person's shoulder or head following the singing of "Happy Birthday to You". In Ecuador, sometimes the birthday person will take a large bite off the birthday cake before it is served.
The birthday cake is often decorated with small taper candles, secured with special holders or simply pressed down into the cake. In the UK, North America and Australia, the number of candles is equal to the age of the individual whose birthday it is, sometimes with one extra for luck. Traditionally, the birthday person makes a private wish, which will be realized if all the candles are extinguished in a single breath.
In North America, birthday cake is often served with ice cream.
To represent a sharing of joy and togetherness, the cake is shared amongst all the guests attending the party. As a courtesy, it reflects one's hospitality and respect for guests.
Candles and theories of origin
Though the exact origin and significance of the candles and the blowing ritual is unknown, there are multiple theories trying to explain this tradition.
It is sometimes claimed that the tradition of placing candles on birthday cakes could be attributed to early Greeks: to honor the goddess's birth on the sixth day of every lunar month. The link between her presidency over fertility and the birthday tradition of candles on cakes, however, has not been established.
The use of fire in ritual is ancient. "Birthday candles, in folk belief, are endowed with special magic for granting wishes. . . . Lighted tapers [candles] and sacrificial fires have had a special mystic significance ever since man first set up altars to his gods. The birthday candles are thus an honor and tribute to the birthday child and bring good fortune. . . . "
There is evidence of the use of candles on cakes at birthday celebrations in 18th Century Germany. This version of the tradition can be traced to Kinderfest (Kinder is the German word for 'children'), a birthday celebration for children. This tradition and the birthday tradition we follow today mirror each other in the use of candles and cakes. 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 might protect the children from the evil spirits attempting to steal innocent souls. In pagan culture it was believed evil spirits visited people on their birthdays. To protect the person having the birthday from evil, people used to surround him and make merry. Partygoers made much noise to scare away evil spirits. In those times there was no tradition of bringing gifts and guests would merely bring good wishes for the birthday person. However, if a guest did bring gifts it was considered to be a good sign for the person of honor. Later, flowers became quite popular as a birthday gift.
- In 1746, a large birthday festival was held for 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."
- A letter written in 1799 by Goethe recounts: "...when it was time for dessert, the prince's entire livery...carried a generous-size torte with colorful flaming candles - amounting to some fifty candles - that began to melt and threatened to burn down, instead of there being enough room for candles indicating upcoming years, as is the case with children's festivities of this kind...." As the excerpt indicates, the tradition at the time was to place one candle on the cake for each year of the individual's life, so that the number of candles on top of the cake would represent the age which some one had reached; sometimes a birthday cake would have some added candles 'indicating upcoming years.'
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" amongst the Swiss middle class. The following statement was recorded: “A birthday-cake must have lighted candles arranged around it, one candle for each year of life. Before the cake is eaten, the person whose birthday it is should blow out the candles one after another.”
Birthday pastry cultural variations
Variations on the birthday pastry exist outside of Western culture. The Chinese birthday pastry is the shòu bāo (壽包, simp. 寿包) or shòu táo bāo (壽桃包, simp. 寿桃包), a lotus-paste-filled bun made of wheat flour and shaped and colored to resemble a peach. Rather than serving one large pastry, each guest is served their own small sou bao. In Korea, the traditional birthday dish is a seaweed soup. In Western Russia, birthday children are served fruit pies with a birthday greetings carved into the crusts. The Swedish birthday cake is made like a pound cake and is often topped with marzipan and decorated with the national flag. Dutch birthday pastries are fruit tarts topped with whipped cream.
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