Birthdays are like belly buttons: everyone’s got one. Most of us have celebrated our share of ‘em, too.
But where does the idea of a birthday come from, anyway? When and where was the birthday invented? Are birthdays a modern celebration, or did Paleolithic people throw the ancient equivalent to a kegger on their big day too?
When did birthdays begin to be celebrated?
Birthdays predate Christianity. The earliest record of birthday celebrations is way back in Paganism and Neopaganism culture.
Pagans believed that people tended to attract evil spirits on dates of great change – like birthdays. To keep the nastiness at bay, friends and family surrounded the birthday person with noisy merriment, which everyone knows that evil spirits can’t stand.
Early Christians weren’t too keen on the idea of birthdays, since they run a bit counter to the idea of humans being born with “original sin.” The pagan associations didn’t help much, either. But around the 4th century, Christians changed their minds and began to think birthdays were pretty neat, especially Jesus’. It was scheduled for the 25th of December to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, in the hopes of converting a pagan or two.
So, did the Ancient Romans celebrate birthdays?
Why, yes they did. But just the men. Female birthdays weren’t celebrated until much later, around the 12th century.
The Roman government created public holidays to celebrate the birthdays of famous (male) figures, while the common dude-in-a-toga just had a party with his friends and family.
50th birthdays were considered especially important in Ancient Rome (by the way, the life expectancy of the Romans was NOT 35 – they just had a terribly high child mortality rate, bringing the average way down). When you hit half a century, you would be treated with a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese.
It was only a hop, skip, and a jump from ancient revelry to blowing out the candles on the birthday cake.
Where did birthday cakes and candles come from?
There’s a couple sweet theories on the table.
The early Greeks used to enjoy round or crescent-shaped cakes in honor of Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon. They lit candles on the cakes to make them glow, just like the moon in the sky.
Another theory is that birthday cake comes from the Germans, who used to make bread in the shape of baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth. They lit just one candle in the center of the bread, symbolizing “the light of life.”
It’s not too tricky a leap from either of these traditions to making a wish when you blow out the candles.
The Germans are the ones who gave us birthday celebrations as we know them today, too. In the late 18th century, they celebrated Kinderfeste, which was a cake-and-candles party for kids on their birthdays. Kids got a candle for each year of age… plus one extra, to symbolize the hope for another party next year.