Solstice and Santa

The Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is December 21 this year, the shortest day and longest night of the year. (For those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year.)

What is a Solstice?

If you note the spot where the sun rises each day for a year, you’ll see it moves along the eastern horizon until it reaches its farthest point (the solstice or sun-stop) before it seems to turn around and move back toward the center (the equinox). For a more complete explanation, see the earlier post on Solstice and Equinox.

santa solstice

The Winter Solstice is an important event for those of us who hate the very brief daylight and early darkness of late fall days because we know all that will start to change after the Winter Solstice. The days will start to get longer, the nights shorter. We’ll be on the upswing, even if the day to day change is slight.

This moment of change is so important it’s often marked by rituals and lights. The Hindu festival of Diwali features lights, candles, fireworks, prayers, treats and sweets.santa tree of life menorah

The Jewish festival of Chanukah (Hanukkah) involves songs, prayers, special foods, good fellowship, and of course, the lighting of the candles on the menorah one by one over the course of eight days. The bronze menorah pictured features a Tree of Life design inspired by the African Acacia tree, an interesting combination of themes.

Perhaps the best-known post-Winter Solstice celebration is Christmas, but it is a complicated holiday and season. In some ways, it’s about the birth of Jesus. In others, it’s more a commercial and social event, one sewn together out of dozens of cultural patches from different times and regions.

Two main influences have shaped our thoughts about the Winter Solstice and Christmas: the Mediterranean and ancient Near East, especially the Roman Empire and the early Catholic Church, and the Nordic traditions of Yule.

In the Mediterranean world and the Ancient Near East

The greatest power in the Ancient Near East about 500 BC was the Persian Empire. It stretched from the Black Sea to the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. After Alexander the Great, originally from Macedonia in Greece, defeated the Persian King Darius, Alexander became the new King and, by 323 BC, extended the empire’s reach from Greece to India, over two million square miles! Alexander sought to combine elements of Greek, Middle Eastern, and Persian culture.

Santa persian_empire map

After Alexander’s death, the empire fell apart, but his efforts to spread Greek culture ushered in the Hellenistic period, which lasted over two hundred years and had a lasting influence on Western civilization.  Alexander coin, below. Note his interesting headdress.

Santa AlexanderCoin

When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, about 146 BC, it incorporated many parts of Greek culture, as well as some elements of Persian culture that Alexander had introduced. When the Roman Empire conquered new lands (See map, below), their armies spread those cultural elements as well.

Santa map-roman-empire1

One interesting element of Persian culture spread by the Roman army was Mithraism, a mysterious men-only cult that involved worship of the sun as Mithra, complex initiations, a strict hierarchy of power, and absolute loyalty to the ruler.santa sol invictus

Even after the cult’s popularity faded, Emperor Diocletian dedicated an altar to Mithras (pictured above) as patron of the Roman Empire. In 80 AD, an altar to Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) in Rome carried the inscription “The Unconquered Sun Mithra.” In a mosaic, Mithra-Sol appears in a chariot drawn across the sky by four horses, as he makes the sun rise and set. He is generally shown with a halo around his head, or a crown of rays, like the sun.

Santa, Sun, Mithra, Apollo

How does all of this about Mithra/Sol Invictus relate to those of us anxiously awaiting the Winter Solstice? The biggest day of the year for followers of Mithra was December 25, when it was clear that the sun was once again growing in strength. The priests of Mithra, called Magi, studied the stars for signs. (They show up in a later story.)

Today, the Iranian festival Shab-e Yalda (“The Night of Birth”) carries on the tradition of gathering together with friends and family to ward off the darkness of the longest night and then celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness.

Santa ChristAsSol mosaic

Interestingly, Sol/Helios, with halo, is sometimes pictured in a golden chariot being pulled by four horses. A 3rd century AD mosaic of Sol Invictus still lies in a necropolis (place of the dead) underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Some now interpret it as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus/Jesus Christ. (Mosaic pictured, left)


The Romans later morphed the December 25 “dies soli invicti nati” (the birthday of the unconquered sun) into a week-long wild party called Saturnalia, dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, liberation, and time. During the festival, which dates back at least as far as 217 BC, Romans decorated their houses with greenery and candles, gave gifts to children, and enjoyed good food, drink, sex, some gambling and fighting – all the regular party elements. With work suspended and lots to celebrate, it was the most popular of the Roman festivals. (Saturn in his chariot, below.  Yes, there is a similarity.)

Santa Saturn in chariot

Indeed, the festival remained popular long after Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians, (312 AD), converted to Christianity, banned Saturnalia and other “pagan” festivals, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

When Catholic Church officials realized they couldn’t eradicate Saturnalia, they co-opted it, making it the celebration of the birth of Jesus. No one knew the actual date of Jesus’s birth, so it was a perfect date for a celebration of new birth and the triumph of light over darkness.


Though the Roman Empire had a new official religion, it maintained many of the older customs, not just in terms of festivals. Important figures, formerly seen as gods and goddesses, were now presented as Jesus and His particularly notable followers. Through their pure faith and ability to inspire others, they became known as saints. In Christian artwork, they were often marked by a halo, a golden orb around the head very much like the sun orb around the head of Sol/Mithra and the orbs surrounding Hindu and Buddhist holy people.

Santa Kzanskaya Mother of God icon  Santa infant with halo  santa Madonna_benois_01

When Jesus appeared in a painting or sculpture with other holy people, his halo often had rays as well as the orb, in keeping with the Mithraic sense of rank.

The Benoit Madonna, or Madonna with Flowers, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s early paintings (on the far right), shows subtle floating halos around the heads of the Madonna and Child. However, the more modern stained glass image of Jesus shows a full rayed halo reminiscent of the older image in the mosaic (left) and the image of Alexander on the coin.

Santa Jesus halo   Santa StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Myra (modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD, who was known for his strict defense of the Christian faith and his generous gift-giving. He was said to have given gifts to poor children and secretly provided the dowry money to keep three sisters out of a life of prostitution.Santa Saint Nicholas icon

The icon show his serious demeanor, as well as his halo. The painting by Gentile da Fabriano, made a thousand years after Saint Nicholas’s death, shows him sneaking up the side of a building so he can throw bundles of money inside.

Santa Saint Nicholas window

The Nordic Connection

Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, the Juul (Yule) celebration before, during, and after the Winter Solstice included feasting, fighting, drinking, and merrymaking, as well as lots of fire, heat, and light to encourage the return of the sun.

In Norse mythology, the wolf, a symbol of darkness and destruction, is always chasing the goddess of light. At the Winter Solstice, she is at her most vulnerable. Yet the epic Edda says after she is killed and eaten, she is reborn out of the belly of the wolf. Just as she will always be consumed by darkness, she will always return. So the Winter Solstice Yule is a celebration of the interplay of death and rebirth.

santa holly

Like holly, the evergreen tree was a Norse symbol of immortality because it didn’t lose its leaves and turn brown, even after all the other plants did. Therefore, it had special powers. Vikings used holly leaves and berries to make circular wreaths to decorate their houses. To some people, trees were  homes of the spirits, so they decorated evergreen trees in winter with charms and offerings.

The Yule log was burned in honor of the Norse god, Thor, the protector of Earth (Midgard). A piece of the giant log was kept for good luck and as kindling for the following year’s fire.santa yule_log martha vineyard gazette

The picture here shows a log in a hearth, but really a Yule log should be giant and the hearth that can hold it should also be giant, so that, for a moment at least, it can drive away all thoughts of the dark and the cold.



Unlike the Thor of the Marvel comics and movies, Thor in Nordic legends traveled the skies in a magic chariot drawn by two goats. Sometimes he killed and ate the goats, but they would always be reborn the next day – a perfect symbol for the Winter Solstice sun dying one day and being reborn the next. The goat became a symbol of Thor. Today, the Yule Goat is the most common holiday decoration in Scandinavian countries.

goat with elf and light

In some holiday images, elves drive a sleigh pulled by one goat, or several, so they can deliver gifts to children.

Goat and elves-Nystrom_God-Jul_10

The Dark Side

Ancient Norse folk beliefs also included dark, scary figures: the Yule Riders of Norwegian folklore, dangerous creatures of the Underworld; Lussi, who would steal children away into her dark world, Icelandic trolls and the Yule Lads, who live in the mountains with their terrifying ogress mother Gryla and her cat, which eats children.


santa krampisparade

Norse and Germanic folklore also gave us Krampus, the Christmas devil who shows up on December 6, which is also the feast day of Saint Nicholas, but Krampus is not carrying gifts. He’s carrying a rod with which he can beat wicked children. He looks truly terrifying. Oddly enough, he’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days, especially in Austria and Germany. The photo included is from this year’s festival. Some parents  take their children to meet Krampus and be terrified. Maybe it’s supposed to scare them into better behavior. The main legacy of Krampus, though, seems to be the idea that someone is keeping tabs on your behavior, and you’ll be rewarded with gifts if you’ve been good, but be punished if you’ve been bad.


Santa Christmas-MistletoeThank the Celtic Druids for the mistletoe you hang in the parlor. Mistletoe, a semi-parasitic plant that grows on willow, apple and oak trees, was long considered a magical, medicinal, and sacred plant that should be gathered at the Summer or Winter Solstice. People often pinned a sprig of mistletoe over the door to ward off evil spirits and encourage goodwill. Interestingly, mistletoe was incorporated into many Saturnalia celebrations as a fertility symbol.

Old Man Winter/Father Christmas/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus

The Nordic Yule Goat at one time brought children gifts. Other pre-Santa Nordic figures include Old Man Winter and Father Christmas.santa_bluecoat

Father Christmas was pictured as an old man with a long beard, very often dressed in embroidered cloth or furs and carrying a cut evergreen tree or perhaps wearing a wreath of holly.  He might still carry a switch to punish bad children.  Sometimes he rode a goat.

The antique Christmas card pictured below shows Father Christmas carrying a cut evergreen tree, toys, and the baby Jesus, who has a rayed halo, an interesting mix of cultural images.

Santa carrying Jesus

Sinterklass was the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas. A serious old man sporting a full beard and fine red robes, he kept a book in which he recorded whether each child had been good or bad. He would deliver gifts to good children and a broom made of willow branches to spank bad children.

The Trouble with Christmas

People from all over the globe came to the New World and brought their native customs about the Solstice and Christmas with them. However, these customs were not always welcomed. The Puritans and other conservative Christian sects hated Christmas, claiming it was little more than a pagan celebration with a Christian veneer.

Worse than that, by 1800, Winter Solstice/Christmas celebrations in the US had become wild, rowdy affairs noted for public drunkenness, aggressive begging, and destruction. The common practice of demanding food and drink from the rich (which later turned into the tamer “Wassailing”) sometimes ended in gangs threatening to destroy a house if not offered the finest food and ale.

Santa festive druid with elf

Stephen Nissenbaum describes the problem in his fine book, The Battle for Christmas. There were two camps in the eastern US in 1800: those who wanted the wild Solstice/Harvest party like the one pictured, and those who wanted something gentler, kinder, and more religious. In 1809, partially in response to these problems, Washington Irving published Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in which the narrator claims to remember the old customs associated with Christmas, particularly those of the early Dutch settlers in New York. He describes Saint Nicholas’s wagon, his pipe, and his gifts, and the great customs of visiting family and friends, sharing good food and drink, as well as games. It’s a fine, civilized picture.

In 1810, John Pitard paid for the publication of a pamphlet featuring a picture of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts like toys, oranges, and candy to good children.

In 1821, William Gilley published a poem called “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” which includes many of the features we’ve come to expect of Santa: the red outfit, the appearance on Christmas Eve, and the presents for good children. For naughty children, he leaves a birch rod so parents can beat the offending little ones. And the poem is the first to mention reindeer pulling the magic sleigh, rather than goats. Santa HarpersStNick001 1857

“A Visit from St. Nicholas”

This poem, published in 1823, also called by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas,” did the most to change the figure of Saint Nicholas into what we know as Santa Claus. Though the main character is called Saint Nicholas in the poem, he’s not the 4th century Turkish bishop, the stern authority figure of the early Church. He’s now good ol’ Saint Nick, dressed in fur that was covered in soot. “He look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.” His eyes twinkle. He has a broad face and a round belly. He’s “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” He has lost his halo and his bishop’s robes. He no longer has dark hair, dark eyes, and a stern face. In the 1857 Harper’s version, he’s seen climbing down the chimney while his magic flying reindeer/deer wait for him.

Moore’s Santa is much kinder than Sinterklaas or Santeclaus. He’s a jolly old elf like those of Norse lore, even though he doesn’t look much like an elf. He doesn’t leave birch rods, only presents. He winks at the viewer/narrator before he heads back up the chimney, as if they’re both in on a wonderful joke. And he wishes a Happy Christmas to ALL. He’s Father Christmas without all the dark stuff.

santa thomas-nast

The Thomas Nast illustration  shown makes Santa really fat. He’s a figure of plenty. He brings gifts to children. He lives in the North Pole and has a workshop run by elves.  And he’s wildly popular. But he’s not overtly religious. He has a sprig of holly in his cap and a knowing twinkle in his eye. He now carries a long clay pipe, the type fancied by the wealthy. His cheeks look pretty flushed. He carries so many toys he can barely keep hold of them all.  He’s an odd relative of the severe saint he’s named after and the Father Christmas figures who preceded him. Mostly, he’s shown riding on his magical sleigh while he brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, in the card pictured below, he has an American flag on his pink sleigh.  Make that two.  Does this mean Santa only delivers in the USA?

Santa and deer

Through the early 1900s, the Nast version of Santa co-existed with the more gaunt or elfin figures of Father Christmas.Santa Coca-Cola-Christmas

Then, in 1931, Coca-Cola asked Haddon Sundblom to design an image of Santa for their ads. Sundblom’s painting clearly uses the Nast figure of Santa as a model. He’s not an olive-skinned Turk. He’s a blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked, jolly fat man who sports the red outfit with fur trim on the cuffs. Sundblom’s Santa was so popular, the artist went on to paint Santa ads for Coke for the next 32 years!

So, out of the Solstice, Saturnalia, Mithra, Sol Invictus, Saint Nicholas, Old Man Winter, Father Christmas, Thor, elves, Yule, and good old American commercialism, we end up with something that has parts of all of them and yet turns into something a little less than the sum of those parts. Santa is pleasant and acceptable to many, but in the end, it’s quite a bland image, especially now that it’s been stripped of its ethnic, spiritual, and magical associations. Today he’s used to peddle cars and power drills and soft drinks. He works in malls and shows up at various events around town before Christmas. Children are encouraged to sit in his lap and make wishes/demands.

Santa Miracle on 34th Street

Who is this man with the fake beard and strange outfit? He’s meant to be the figure he never quite manages to be: the Santa in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which Edmund Gwenn, as Kris Kringle, convinces young Susan, played by Natalie Wood, and her doubting mother, played by Maureen O’Hara, that Santa Claus really does exist.

That Santa Claus is the personification of a fond memory, a wish for something magical.

Every year, I hear about people who are upset because they think holiday lights and candles and evergreens and mistletoe are “pagan” and therefore evil. But they’re just elements of the past that belongs to all of us. Time didn’t begin with the birth of Jesus. Indeed, He followed customs and rituals of His Jewish ancestors. When we decorate an evergreen tree with lights and hang mistletoe, we are simply giving a nod to our amazing – and complicated – collective past.

Happy Winter Solstice!  Happy Hanukkah!  Merry Christmas!

Sources and interesting reading:

Bagot, Neil, “Yule – A Merry Viking Christmas?” Viking Slots, 19 December 2014,

Basu, Tanya. “Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil,” National Geographic News, 1 December 2017

“Coca-Cola didn’t invent Santa – but they did change Christmas as we know it,” The Aps Group,

Eldridge, Allison. “7 Winter Solstice Celebrations From Around the World,”,

Fox, Selena, “Celebrating Winter Solstice,” Circle Sanctuary, 2017.

Galloway, Laura, “How Santa Got His Reindeer,” CNN, 223 December 2012,

Harris, Kathleen, “How Joulupukki, the Finnish Santa, went from naughty to nice,” Ink Tank, 22 December 2015.

“Halo (Religious Iconography)” Wikipedia.

Handwerk, Brian, “Saint Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus,” National Geographic News, 29 November 2017,

“Holidays and Traditions around the December solstice,” Time and Date AS, 1995 – 2017.

“Icelandic Folklore,” Iceland Travel.

“Julbock ornament – pewter” Scandinavian

“The Magical History of Yule, The Pagan Winter Solstice Celebration,” The Huffington Post, 2 December 2016,

Map of Persian Empire about 500 BC,

Map of Roman Empire at the end of Julius Caesar’s reign, 100 BC BBC Primary History/Romans/Rome

“Mithraism/Persian Religion,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Miracle on 34th Street, Twentieth Century Fox, 1947.

“Mosaic of Sol Invictus in Mausoleum M in pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica,” Halo, Wikipedia.

Nelles, Scott, Tree of Life menorah, cast bronze,

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc, 1998.

Nystrom, Jenny, “Elf Gnome Delivering Presents on Goat Sled,” Christmas counted cross stich or counted needlepoint pattern, Orenco Originals, (//…)

“Old Norse Yule Celebration – Myth and Ritual,” Lady of the Labyrinth’s Old Norse Mythology,

“Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” anonymous poem published in New York in 1821, Wikipedia.

Pruitt, Sarah, “8 Winter Solstice Celebrations around the World,” History Stories, A&E Television Networks, 20 December 2016,

“Saint Lucy,” BBC – Religions – Christianity: Saint Lucy.

“Saint Nicholas,” Wikipedia.

Saint Nicholas painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), public domain, Wikipedia Commons,

“Santa Claus,”

“Santa Claus,” Wikipedia.

“Saturn,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Sinterklaas,” Wikipedia.

“Sol Invictus,” Wikipedia.

“Stained Glass Good Shepherd,” stained glass at St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, New South Wales. Wiki Common,

Thomas, Robert B. “Yule comes from the name of old feast in honor of Thor, Midwinter solar rituals included fires, which evolved into yule log,” Deseret News, 12 December 1999. Also Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, http://www.almanac.comYankeePublishing

“Thor,” Thor with goats, Wiki Commons. Gotter_des_Nordens.jpg

“The Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas,” Why Christmas?

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, Wikipedia,

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, 1822, from Burton Egbert Stevenson, ed. The Home Book of Verse, Volume 1 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1912), Project Gutenberg etext #2619,

Wade, Deena, “Winter Solstice Traditions: Rituals for a Simple Celebration,” Mother Earth Living, November-December 2004,

Weaver, Sue. “The Yule Goat (Yulbock)” Storey Publishing, http:www/

Whipp, Deborah, “The History of Santa’s Reindeer,” Altogether Christmas,

“Why is Christmas Day on the 25th December?” Ehy Christmas,

“Yule Goat,” Wikipedia,

Happy Birthday: Cake, Candles, and Customs


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. birthday-cake-and-candles


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. birthday-artemis 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, “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.

birthday-sol-invictusOne 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.

Name 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. birthday-saint-stephen

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. birthday-st-stephens-day-one-world-news(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.


birthday-constantineActually, 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.

Evil Eye charmBut 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

birthday-vigil-candlesThe 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?

kr-birthday-at-aunt-suesThe 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.

“Birthday Superstitions,” New World Witchery – the Search for American Traditional Witchcraft, blog post 159. superstitions/

“Ceremonial Use of Lights,” Wikipedia.

“Christmas,” World Book Encyclopedia, 1966, 3:408 – 417

Deezen, Eddie. “Why do we put candles on a birthday cake?” Neatorama blog.

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.

“History of Candle Making,” Nature’s Garden class.

“The History of the Birthday Cake,” Hankering for History blog by bravodeluxe,

“The Importance of Lighting Candles,” Sepulchre Candles.

Linton, Ralph and Adelin. The Lore of Birthdays. Omnigraphics: 1952.

“Mithrasim,” Wikipedia.

“Name Day,” Wikipedia.

“The Origin of Birthday Cake and Candles,” ProFlowers blog.


Puckles Family Bakehouse, “A History of Birthday Cakes,” 2011.

“Quick History of the Birthday Cake and Candles,” Trivial Importance video.

“St. Stephen’s Day,” Wikipedia.

“Sol Invictus,” (image)  Shadows Magick Place­invictus­yule­and­magick.html

Still Waters Revival Books, “Birthdays: Pagan/Occult Origins & the Highest of All Holy Days (Holidays) in the Satanic Bible,”

“Theodosius I,” Wikipedia.

Thomas, Daniel and Lucy.  Kentucky Superstitions.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1920.

Turner, Bambi. “10 Wacky Birthday Superstitions,” How Stuff Works.

“Why Australians won’t let kids blow out birthday candles,” Wide World of Stuff blog, 20 February 2013.  (photo)

“Why do we blow out candles to celebrate birthdays?” Alusi Candles blog, 1 June 2015.

“Why do we blow out candles on your birthdays?  A deep insight into it” Naresh Golla blog,