Birthday cake

A birthday cake is a cake eaten as part of a birthday celebration. Birthday cakes are often layer cakes with frosting served with small lit candles on top representing the celebrant's age. Variations include cupcakes, cake pops, pastries, and tarts. The cake is often decorated with birthday wishes ("Happy birthday") and the celebrant's name.

Birthday cake
Birthday cake with lit candles


The Birthday Cake by 19th-century German genre painter Pancraz Körle.

Birthday cakes have been a part of birthday celebrations in Western European countries since the middle of the 19th century.[1] However, the link between cakes and birthday celebrations may date back to ancient Roman times; in classical Roman culture, cakes were occasionally served at special birthdays and at weddings. These were flat circles made from flour and nuts, leavened with yeast, and sweetened with honey.

In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany began to market one-layer cakes for customers' birthdays in addition to cakes for weddings. During the 17th century, the birthday cake took on its contemporary form. These elaborate cakes had many aspects of the contemporary birthday cake, like multiple layers, icing, and decorations. However, these cakes were only available to the very wealthy. Birthday cakes became accessible to the lower class as a result of the industrial revolution and the spread of more materials and goods.

Contemporary rites

Child with a birthday cake, c.1930–1940

The cake, pastry, or dessert is served to a person on their birthday. In contemporary Western cultures, the cake is topped with one or more lit candles, which the celebrated individual attempts to blow out.

There is no standard for birthday cakes, though the "Happy Birthday" song is often sung while the cake is served in English-speaking countries, or an equivalent birthday song in the appropriate language of the country. The phrase "happy birthday" did not appear on birthday cakes until the song "Happy Birthday to You" was popularized in the early 1900s. Variations of birthday songs and rituals exist in different parts of the world. In Uruguay, party guests touch the person's shoulder or head following the singing of "Happy Birthday to You". In Ecuador, the person whose birthday it is will take a large bite of the birthday cake before it is served. In Peru, guests sing "Happy Birthday to You" first in English with the name of the individual whose birthday it is, then in Spanish, later they sing any other song in Spanish regarding cake or date, finally blowing candles and serving the cake.

The birthday cake is often decorated with small candles, secured with special holders or simply pressed down into the cake. The cake can also be served with other sweets such as ice cream. In the UK, North America and Australia, the number of candles is usually equal to the age of the individual whose birthday it is, sometimes with one extra for luck. Traditionally, the person whose birthday it is makes a wish, which is thought to come true if all the candles are extinguished in a single breath.

To represent a sharing of joy and a sense of togetherness, the cake is shared amongst all the guests attending the party.

Candles and theories of origin

Modern celebration candles spelling out "Happy birthday"

In many cultures the person whose birthday is being celebrated is invited to make a wish, and blow out candles.[2][3][4] Though the exact origin and significance of this ritual is unknown, there are multiple theories which try to explain this tradition.

Greek origin story

One theory explaining the tradition of placing candles on birthday cakes is attributed to the early Greeks, who used candles to honor the goddess Artemis' birth on the sixth day of every lunar month. The link between her oversight of fertility and the birthday tradition of candles on cakes, however, has not been established.[5]

Pagan origin story

Kinder Fest.

The use of fire in certain rites dates back to the creation of altars. Birthday candles are said to hold symbolic power.[6]

In the past it was believed that evil spirits visited people on their birthdays and that, to protect the person whose birthday it was from evil, people must surround the individual and make them merry. Party-goers made noise to scare away evil spirits.

German origin story

Girls with birthday cake. Postcard from 1920.

In 18th century Germany, the history of candles on cakes can be traced back to Kinderfest, a birthday celebration for children.[7] This tradition also makes use of candles and cakes. German children were taken to an auditorium-like space. There, they were free to celebrate another year in a place where Germans believed that adults protected children from the evil spirits attempting to steal their souls. In those times there was no tradition of bringing gifts to a birthday; 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 whose birthday it was. Later, flowers became quite popular as a birthday gift.[8]

  • In 1746, a large birthday festival was held for Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf at Marienborn near Büdingen. 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."[9]
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, having spent 24–30 August 1801 in Gotha as a guest of Prince August of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, recounts of his 52nd birthday on 28 August: "when it was time for dessert, the prince's entire livery in full regalia entered, led by the majordomo. He 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."[10] 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.'

Swiss origin story

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" among the Swiss middle class. One statement depicted a birthday cake as having lighted candles which correspond to each year of life. These candles were required to be blown out, individually, by the person who is being celebrated.[11]


In June 2017 researchers at Clemson University reported that some individuals deposit a large number of bacteria on the cake.[2][3][4][12]

Birthday cakes in different cultures

There are many variations of sweets which are eaten around the world on birthdays. The Chinese birthday pastry is the shòu bāo (simplified Chinese: 寿包; traditional Chinese: 壽包) or shòu táo bāo (simplified Chinese: 寿桃包; traditional Chinese: 壽桃包), 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 shòu bāo. In Western Russia, birthday children are served fruit pies with a birthday greeting carved into the crusts. The Swedish birthday cake is made like a pound cake that is often topped with marzipan and decorated with the national flag. Dutch birthday pastries are fruit tarts topped with whipped cream. In India there are very few people who celebrate birthdays in the villages, but in cities and towns, birthday cakes are consumed similarly as in Western countries, especially among people with higher education.

See also


  1. "Birthday Cakes: History & Recipes – Online article with an extensive bibliography".
  2. Sarah Zhang (2017-07-27). "Blowing Out Birthday Candles Increases Cake Bacteria by 1,400 Percent: But it's okay, really!". Atlantic magazine. Retrieved 2017-12-03. On average, blowing out the candles increased the amount of bacteria on the frosting by 14 times. But in one case, it increased the amount of bacteria by more than 120 times. "Some people blow on the cake and they don't transfer any bacteria. Whereas you have one or two people who really for whatever reason ... transfer a lot of bacteria." says Dawson."
  3. Sarah Young (2017-07-31). "Blowing out birthday candles increases bacteria on cake by 1,400%, study reveals". The Independent. Retrieved 2017-12-03. They then lit the candles and blew them out before diluting the frosting with sterilised water and spreading it out on agar plates for the bacteria to grow.
  4. Elizabeth Sherman (2017-07-28). "Blowing Out Birthday Candles Could Ruin the Cake". Food & Wine. Retrieved 2017-12-03.
  5. Rusinek, Marietta (2012). "Cake:The Centrepiece of Celebrations". Celebration: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2011. Oxford: Prospect Books. pp. 308–315.
  6. The Lore of Birthdays (New York, 1952), Ralph and Adelin Linton, pp. 8, 18–20.
  7. "Keeping the Legacy". German Hausbarn.
  8. "History of Birthdays". Archived from the original on 2020-01-30. Retrieved 2013-11-04.
  9. Frey, Andreas (1753-01-01). A true and authentic account of Andrew Frey. Containing the occasion of his coming among the ... Moravians [&c.]. Transl.
  10. Shirley Cherkasky: Birthday Cakes and Candles, p. 220 Goethe's Tag- und Jahreshefte 1801
  11. The Folk-lore Journal. Folk-lore Society. 1883-01-01. p. 380.
  12. Paul Dawson, Inyee Han, Danielle Lynn, Jenevieve Lackey, Johnson Baker, Rose Martinez-Dawson (2017). "Bacterial Transfer Associated with Blowing Out Candles on a Birthday Cake". Journal of Food Research. Vol. 6, no. 4. Retrieved 2017-12-03.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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