Why Do We Blow Out Birthday Candles?

Have you ever wondered why we stick candles in perfectly good cakes and set fire to them just to celebrate another year of living? The birthday cake has a long and murky history, but most explanations revolve around worshiping the gods. That's right: happy birthday to you, you supernatural being.

A Many-Millennia Tradition

The earliest known reference to a birthday is 4,000 years ago. In ancient Egypt, the coronation date of a Pharaoh was a big deal, since they believed that was when the king transformed from a human into a god. The Bible mentions the celebration of a Pharaoh's birthday — which Egyptologist Dr. James Hoffmeier believes actually references his coronation date, or "birth" as a god — as far back as the second millennium B.C.E. But they didn't bake a cake for the occasion, as far as historians know.

The Greeks put candles on cakes for a different reason. Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo, was the goddess of the hunt and the moon. To honor her, Greeks would bake round or moon-shaped honey cakes in offering, adorning them with lit candles to help them resemble the glow of the full moon. The candles may have been more than symbolic: some ancient cultures believed that smoke could help carry prayers up to the gods.

The first people we know of who almost certainly used cakes to celebrate the birthdays of regular old humans were the Romans. They baked cakes with wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and grated cheese to honor the birthdays of friends and family.

Birthdays In The Modern Day

Of course, birthday cakes these days are more often associated with children than with grownups. The modern kid's birthday cake began with the German Kinderfest in the late 18th century. These events celebrated children with cakes topped with one candle for each year the child had been alive, plus one in the hopes they'd live another year. They also involved blowing out the candles and making a wish, hearkening back to those early religious traditions.

These days, with parents so worried about germs, allergies, and sugar, it's a wonder the birthday cake tradition has lived on. Despite the fact that blowing out birthday candles spreads spit everywhere and multiplies the bacteria atop your cake an average of 14 times, the cake-and-candles routine is as popular as ever. That just goes to show how far we'll go to celebrate each other. As Sarah Zhang writes in the Atlantic, "Socially acceptable ways of sharing saliva align with existing bonds of trust." What's true of kisses is true of cake.

28 Birthday Traditions From Around the World

Written by Curiosity Staff July 5, 2016

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