From cakes to candles: the origins of birthday traditions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Imagine a birthday party and you’ll like envision a delicious cake glowing with candles, colorful balloons, cards and gifts and a rousing chorus of &uot;Happy Birthday to You.&uot; Where and when did these merry birthday traditions originate?

One of the yummiest birthday customs we enjoy is that of the birthday cake. One theory about its origin is that it started with the ancient Greeks, who baked round cakes to represent the full moon for their moon goddess, Artemis. They placed candles on the cake to make it glow like the moon.

The Germans, who were skilled candle makers, have also been credited with the first cake with candles. They used a sweet, layered cake and put a candle in the center to represent the &uot;the light of life.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

Today, when they close their eyes to make a wish and blow out the candles, some people believe the smoke from the extinguished candles carries their wishes up to heaven.

The very first balloons were thought to be children’s toys, made from the bladders and/or intestines of animals, often filled with water. On a rather gruesome note, the Aztecs used to blow air into the bowels of sacrificed cats, twisted them into animal shapes and presented these to the gods as a sacrifice. It was manufacturer Thomas Hancock who first introduced to the world the rubber toy balloon.

Jesters and troubadors once inflated the entrails of recently slaughtered animals and used them to entertain the crowds. Many historians think this is where the association of modern-day balloons (which, thankfully, no animals are harmed to make) with celebrations is believed to have originated.

The tradition of birthday cards started about a century ago in England.

They were originally meant as an &uot;apology&uot; when the sender couldn’t visit the celebrant in person.

As for the "Happy Birthday" song, it goes back just over a hundred years, also.

Two sisters from Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Patty Smith Hill, professor emeritus of education at Columbia University, and Mildred Hill, a teacher and authority on Negro spirituals, co-wrote the song in 1893. It was originally a morning greeting to students entitled &uot;Good Morning to All.&uot;

The song wasn’t copyrighted until 1935.

In 1988, Warner Communications bought the song and other assets of its then-owner, Birch Tree Group, Ltd., for an estimated $25 million.

The little four-line ditty now brings in $2 million in licensing revenue every year. Along with &uot;Auld Ang Syne&uot; and &uot;For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow&uot;, the Happy Birthday song is one of the three most popular tunes in the English language

– and it’s been translated into more than a dozen other languages.

As for birthstones, this tradition originated in the first century, with the stones used in the breastplates of the Jewish high priests. The twelve stones in the breastplate symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. Each stone became dedicated to one of the twelve months of the year.

Each stone has a special meaning. January’s garnet symbolizes loyalty and constancy; the amethyst of February stands for sincerity; March’s aquamarine symbolizes courage; the diamond of April represents innocence;

And May’s emerald stands for success in love. June’s pearl symbolizes good health; the ruby of July represents a contented mind; August’s peridot symbolizes friendship and conjugal felicity and the sapphire of September stands for love, shrewdness and clear thinking. October’s opal represents hope; the citrine of November symbolizes faithfulness and December’s blue topaz stands for prosperity.