Around here, people often celebrate a child’s birthday with a cake, lighted candles, and a song. A parent or friend brings the cake to the table, candles already lit, while all the guests sing the “Happy Birthday” song. The birthday girl or boy is told to make a secret wish then blow out the candles. It’s great fun but sort of an odd tradition. We put this flaming cake in front of a child, hope she doesn’t burn herself or set the house on fire, then cheer when she blows them out. Why?
Like so many of our holiday customs, our birthday rituals come from very old beliefs that have been absorbed into the present but stripped of most of their original meaning.
The birthday cake
The history of the birthday cake is surprisingly vague. If you look up its origins, you’ll find the same two points repeated in almost every source. One refers to round loaves presented (sacrificed) at the temple of the Greek goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans), who was associated with hunting and the moon. Some sources say candles adorned these loaves so they would glow like the moon. (Artemis/Diana, pictured with her hunting bow, on the left)
Also, you’ll read about German bakers in the Middle Ages who baked cakes for aristocrats and much later expanded the practice to ordinary people.
Then there’s often a short and obscure reference to older “pagan customs.” That’s where it gets interesting.
Paganism vs. Christianity
The early Roman Catholic Church tried to erase all traces of earlier beliefs, which were (and still are) often lumped together as “Paganism.” According to Dictionary.com, “pagan” refers to a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. Synonyms include heathen, infidel, idolater, a non- Christian, and (currently) an adherent of neo-Paganism.
Most popular beliefs before the rise of the Abrahamic religions revolved around the natural world, especially the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. People marked the rising of important stars and planets, and the passage of the sun along the horizon that brought the change of seasons. Solstices and equinoxes were celebrated with elaborate rituals. Many groups felt they had to participate in these changes in order to keep the universe turning.
One example of a pre-Christian faith is the Cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia at least 6000 years ago and spread throughout the Roman Empire with the Roman legions. It included worship of the sun as Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), a god whose birthday was generally celebrated just after the winter solstice, December 25. (Image, left)
Emperor Constantine had a coin struck, picturing himself and Sol Invictus side by side, so in a stroke of genius he equated himself with the Unconquered Sun, and December 25 became a Roman holiday: Saturnalia. As a side note, the image of Sol Invictus looks a lot like the head of the Statue of Liberty. (Coin, lower right, Sol Invictus, lower left)
However, early Christian Church officials were so set against pre-Christian practices that they outlawed all celebrations marking celestial events. Birthday celebrations were also forbidden because they made an individual connection with the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars, and thus were used in astrology and divination.
Church teaching said humans were “born in sin,” so clearly, the faithful shouldn’t be celebrating the moment of their birth.
This reflects the beliefs of conservative Jews and Muslims as well. Some sources go so far as to say that birthday celebrations are a form of Satanism in which believers create a god in their own image and celebrate that person’s birth as the highest holy day.
In order to give people an alternative, the Church recommended that the faithful celebrate their “name day” instead of their birthday. Since each Catholic child was named after a saint, the name day was usually that saint’s feast day. Some conservative European Catholics still follow this practice.
For example, all the people named Stephen could have a celebration on St. Stephen’s Day.(Icon of St. Stephen, left) Actually, St. Stephen’s Day is a very important celebration even now, with participants in various European countries marking it with costumed parades, horseback rides, feasting, drinking, playing music and dancing. (photo, right)
While St. Stephen is known as the first martyr to the Christian faith, his feast day seems more like a party than a religious ceremony. Plus, the feast day falls on December 26 or 27, so while it’s dressed up as a feast day, it’s essentially still Saturnalia or the triumph of Sol Invictus.
Actually, the ban on seasonal festivities started to lift as far back as the 4th century. By the time Emperor Constantine (sculpture, left) ended the persecution of Christians and Emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, or what was left of it, traditional beliefs had already started blending with Catholic practices.
Saturnalia (the festival after the winter solstice) became Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Vernal Equinox became part of Easter, which is still celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.
And birthday celebrations, while still frowned upon in conservative circles, became popular once again. Their significance in terms of divination and horoscopes, however, was officially forgotten. This silence allowed old customs and beliefs to grow once again, adding a sense of danger to the celebration.
According to some, any bad event on your birthday warned of a whole bad year ahead. You shouldn’t celebrate before your actual birthday or you’ll have bad luck.
In order to balance the good wishes of a birthday, some people spank the birthday celebrants or pull their ears. In Kentucky Superstitions, Daniel and Lindsey Thomas note, “On a child’s birthday, he should receive a blow with a switch or other instrument of pain for each year of his life. Each blow should be accompanied by the pronouncing of one line of the following or a similar incantation, adapted to fit the age of the child:
One to live on,
One to grow on,
One to eat on,
One to be happy on,
One to get married on.”
It’s hard to know why these customs began, but once they became part of the ritual, it would be bad luck to change them, I suppose.
For important birthdays of aristocrats, special charms were baked into the cake and used to tell the fortune of the receiver. In some cases, these were gems. I can only imagine the dental problems in the future of the unfortunate recipient!
And about those candles –
Candles were the outgrowth of torches built with pitch/resin to burn hotter and longer. Artists used torches like these to light their way in the caves of France and Spain while they painted their beautiful images 30,000 years ago. The Egyptians are usually credited with making the first beeswax candles, 5,000 years ago, but it took the Romans to develop the wick-burning tallow candle, about 100 BC. Because tallow (rendered beef fat) candles smelled worse than beeswax candles, rich people and religious leaders preferred beeswax. They still do.
In animist thought, the natural world is seen as the source of all power, good and bad. For example, water spirits bring life-giving rains and fill the rivers, but they can also send floods that kill. Same with fire. Or storms. The spirit force that is part of the living world is both good and bad. The Abrahamic religions changed that balance. In these faiths, God, not nature, was seen as the source of goodness, prosperity, power and light. Since pain and suffering were still very much part of their lives, people blamed them on the opposite of God: the dark spirits. The main player was Satan (Lucifer) and his minions from Hell, fallen beings of light who’d gone over to the Dark Side. “The Devil made me do it” worked as an all-purpose excuse for bad behavior.
But there were other dark forces as well, many of them carry-overs from earlier superstitions. These evil forces could take many forms, most of them frightening and ugly, and all brought misfortune. Some dangers were well-known, like the evil eye, the power another could have over you simply by giving you a “look of daggers.” (“If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”) Children were particularly susceptible to the dangers of the evil eye, so mothers pinned eye charms on the child’s clothes as a protection (photo, left)
My grandparents thought it was bad luck to compliment a baby. They feared spirits would strike the baby with some illness out of jealousy. And where were these spirits? Everywhere.
The birthday boy or girl was especially susceptible to evil spirits, so it was important to have fire/light and lots of sound to scare them away. Lots of guests helped too, especially if they sang. A bright, happy atmosphere drove away dark spirits.
Even with the lights and singing, danger lurked, so people had to be extremely careful during a birthday. Everything had to be done correctly to avoid bad luck.
Light a candle, make a wish
The candles on the birthday cake contain the wish of the birthday boy or girl. Just like the banks of vigil candles found in Catholic churches (photo, left), if you light a candle, you can make a wish. The practice is so popular that even when churches moved the vigil candles to a distant part of the church, people sought them out. Currently, you can arrange for someone to light a candle at one of the famous churches for you, by paying on-line.
From its inception, the Catholic Church used candles for its rituals, just as the Jews, Romans, Hindus, Egyptians, Persians, and probably most others who came before them had. Fire was a symbol of life and a triumph over darkness. The Holy Spirit was pictured as a tongue of fire. In every active church, a candle, lit on Easter eve, burns all year long, indicating the presence of God in the building. During official ceremonies, multiple candles burn on the altar. At Baptism, a child is blessed with a beeswax candle. In the Last Rites before death, the person is blessed again with a beeswax candle. Russian Orthodox believers will often keep a candle burning before a holy icon in their home.
If lighting candles was common practice in the church, why ban them on a birthday cake? Because it was using sacred fire to mark a “pagan” tradition connecting the person to the stars and planets. When birthday celebrations became more tolerated, the sense of danger lingered. The birthday could be marked, but it had to be done so carefully.
Then why blow out the candles?
The candles are safe as long as the song goes on, but there’s always a sense of hurry once the song (and helpful cheering and clapping) is over. The celebrant must hurry and blow out the candles, even if she needs help to do it. Why? Here are some possibilities:
Perhaps the number of breaths it takes is important in determining the future. Less is more, here, definitely.
Perhaps the smoke carries the wish up to Heaven, just as a burned petition would, in which case the fire becomes an offering, and the cake becomes a sacrifice.
Perhaps the future can be read in the pattern of the smoke. This is a whole area of divination, with its own rules. For example, a tall straight flame means a stranger will arrive shortly. A dripping candle is bad luck for the person on that side of the cake.
Perhaps it’s important that the candle is blown out by a person rather than dying on its own, which could be a sign of evil spirits nearby.
When the early Christian Church attempted to kill birthday celebrations, it only drove them underground and permanently encased them in superstitions. When they were once again allowed, the celebrations lost a lot of their connection to divination but retained their sense of power and danger. In order to protect the celebrant, certain rituals had to be completed exactly. Interestingly, we still go through these steps with great care, even though few birthday party guests today would talk about evil spirits trying to steal the soul of the child unless they were scared away by light, song, and happy noise. Still, we all cheer when the child completes all the steps. Then we can serve the cake and hope the birthday child’s slice doesn’t fall, which would be – you know – bad luck.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Birthday Cake,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birthday_cake
“Birthday Superstitions,” New World Witchery – the Search for American Traditional Witchcraft, blog post 159. https://newworldwitcher.com/2012/06/05/blog-post-159-birthday superstitions/
“Ceremonial Use of Lights,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceremonial_use_of_lights
“Christmas,” World Book Encyclopedia, 1966, 3:408 – 417
Deezen, Eddie. “Why do we put candles on a birthday cake?” Neatorama blog. http://www.neatorama.com/2016/05/18/why-do-we-put-candles-on-a-birthday-cake/
Dwived, Bhojraj, Dr. The Study of Omens. New Delphi: Diamond Pocket Books, 2000.
Goldschneider, Gary, and Joost Elffers. The Secret Language of Birthdays: Your Complete Personology Guide for Each Day of the Year. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.
Haymond, Bryce. “Blowing out Birthday Candles,” Temple Study: Sustaining and Defending the LDS Temple (Latter Day Saints) 18 July 2008. http://www.templestudy.com/2008/07/18/blowing-out-birthday-candles/
“History of Candle Making,” Nature’s Garden class. http://www.naturesgardencandles.com/candlemaking-soap-supplies/item/history/-history-of-candle-making.html
“The History of the Birthday Cake,” Hankering for History blog by bravodeluxe, http://hankeringforhistory.com/the-history-of-the-birthday-cake/
“The Importance of Lighting Candles,” Sepulchre Candles. http://www.sepulchre-candles.com/category/the-importance-of-lighting-candles
Linton, Ralph and Adelin. The Lore of Birthdays. Omnigraphics: 1952.
“Mithrasim,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithraism
“Name Day,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_Day
“The Origin of Birthday Cake and Candles,” ProFlowers blog. http://www.proflowers.com/blog/origin-of-birthday-cake-and-birthday-candles
“Pagan.” Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/pagan
Puckles Family Bakehouse, “A History of Birthday Cakes,” 2011. http://www.puckles.com/au/pages/a-history-of-birthday-cakes
“Quick History of the Birthday Cake and Candles,” Trivial Importance video. www.youtube.com/watch?v=dn5nndo_rz0
“St. Stephen’s Day,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Stephen%27s_Day
“Sol Invictus,” (image) Shadows Magick Place http://shadowsmagickplace.blogspot.com/2012/12/solinvictusyuleandmagick.html
Still Waters Revival Books, “Birthdays: Pagan/Occult Origins & the Highest of All Holy Days (Holidays) in the Satanic Bible,” http://www.sermonaudio.com/new_details3asp?ID=18801
“Theodosius I,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodosius_I
Thomas, Daniel and Lucy. Kentucky Superstitions. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1920.
Turner, Bambi. “10 Wacky Birthday Superstitions,” How Stuff Works. http://people.howstuffworks.com/10-wacky-birthday-superstitions.htm
“Why Australians won’t let kids blow out birthday candles,” Wide World of Stuff blog, 20 February 2013. https://michaeljlewis.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/why-australians-wont-let-kids-blow-out-birthday-candles-a-great-documentary-short-about-a-nyc-hoops-legend-and-michael-jordan-at-50-a-terrific-read/ (photo)
“Why do we blow out candles to celebrate birthdays?” Alusi Candles blog, 1 June 2015. http://alusi.com/why-do-we-blow-out-candles-to-celebrate-birthdays/
“Why do we blow out candles on your birthdays? A deep insight into it” Naresh Golla blog, http://nareshit.blogspot.com/2011/09/why-do-we-blow-out-candles-on-our.html