The other day I was telling someone that the older I get, the longer my birthday festivities seem to last. I consider myself lucky that I have so many people in my life who want to celebrate the day with me – especially when that means that the festivities can carry on well into the month of August! All this got me thinking about the history of birthdays, when did people start celebrating? Has there always been birthday cake? I was a little surprised by what I learned.
While exact details are unknown, historians have agreed on a few things to approximate the history. The first of which being Egypt as the location of the earliest birthday celebrations, the first documented for a pharaoh around 3,000 B.C.E. Pharaohs were considered gods when they were crowned in ancient Egypt, so this party was considered far more important than the day of their birth. It was the day they were born as a god.
With this talk of gods, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the Christian Church originally considered birthday celebrations to be evil. They jumped on the birthday party bandwagon around the 4th century so they could start celebrating their favorite birth day, that of Jesus. This is still celebrated today, of course, and is known as Christmas.
Thanks to the Romans, the festivities were brought to the common man (note the emphasize on “man”). The most widely accepted opinion attributes Romans with bringing the practice of birthday parties to non-religious male figures. People would celebrate friends and families, and public holidays were created to honor more famous citizens. While cakes were included for 50th birthday parties, female birthdays weren’t celebrated until approximately the 12th century.
Birthday cake is actually the easiest tradition to trace back. This likely dates back to the Greeks paying tribute to Artemis, goddess of the moon. To pay tribute to her, they made round (or moon-shaped) cakes lit with candles to recreate the radiance of the moon and her beauty. By late in the 18th century, this tradition had evolved and German children were given birthday cakes with a candle representing each year they had been alive – plus one to symbolize the hope for at least one more year. They were also told to make a wish and blow out the candles. The Industrial Revolution brought birthday cakes to the masses thanks to easier availability of ingredients and mass production.
And what’s a birthday without “The Birthday Song”? Well, that was originally written in 1893 by Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill, they called it “Good Morning to All.” The song caught on across America where students sung it before classes started. In 1924, Robert Coleman published a songbook with the extra lyrics we know today and the original lines have been largely forgotten.
The Huffington Post by Todd Van Luling was a primary source used in this blog post.