The birthday cake
has been an integral part of the
celebrations in Western cultures
since the middle of the
. Certain rituals and
traditions, such as singing of birthday songs, associated with
birthday cakes are common to many Western cultures. The Western tradition
of adding lit candles to the top of a birthday cake originates in
18th century Germany.
However, the intertwining of cakes
birthday celebrations stretch back to the Ancient Romans. The
development of the birthday cake has followed the development of
culinary and confectionery advancement. While throughout most of
Western history, these elaborate cakes in general were the
privilege of the wealthy, birthday cakes are nowadays common to
most Western birthday celebrations. Around the world many
variations on the birthday cake, or rather the birthday pastry or
In classical Roman culture, 'cakes' of flat rounds made with flour
containing nuts, leavened with yeast, and sweetened with honey were
served at special birthdays. In early Europe, the words for cake
and bread were virtually interchangeable; the only difference being
that cakes were sweet while bread was not.
During the 17th century, the birthday cake took on more or less its
contemporary form However, these elaborate cakes, which possessed
many aspects of contemporary cakes (such as layers and
decorations), were only available to the very wealthy. Birthday
cakes became more and more proletarianized as a result of the
industrial revolution, as materials and tools became more advanced
and more accessible.
Contemporary rituals and traditions
Fancy Contemporary Birthday Cake
The cake, or sometimes a pastry
, is served to a person on his or her
birthday. In contemporary Western cultures, two rituals are
prominent: the singing of the traditional birthday song and the
blowing out of candles decorating the cake by the birthday
The service of a birthday cake is often preceded by the singing of
Happy Birthday to You
English speaking countries, or an equivalent birthday song
. In fact, the phrase
"Happy Birthday" did not appear on birthday cakes until the song
Happy Birthday to You was popularized in the early 1900s.
Variations on birthday song rituals exist. For example, in New
Zealand, the Happy Birthday to You is sung out of tune and is
followed by clapping, once for each year of the persons life and
once more for good luck. In Uruguay, party guests touch the
birthday person's shoulder or head following the singing of Happy
Birthday to You.
The birthday cake is often decorated
with taper candles
, secured with
special holders or simply pressed down into the cake. In North
America, the number of candles is equal to the age of the
individual whose birthday it is, sometimes with one extra for luck.
the birthday person makes a
, which will be realized if all the
candles are extinguished in a single breath.
A birthday cake is shared amongst all the people attending a
birthday party. This represents sharing of joy & togetherness.
As a courtesy, it reflects one's hospitality & respect for
Novelty candles may be used.
Though the exact origin and significance of the candle blowing
ritual is unknown, the history of placing candles on top of the
cake is well documented. This tradition can be traced to Kinderfest
(Kinder is the German word for
'children'), an 18th century German birthday celebration for
children. A letter written in 1799 by Goethe
recounts: "...when it was time for dessert, the prince's entire
livery...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..." As the excerpt indicates, the
tradition at the time was to place candles for each of the
individual's life with some added candles 'indicating upcoming
Birthday pastry cultural variations
Variations on the birthday pastry exist outside of Western culture.
The Chinese birthday pastry is the sou bao (壽包), lotus-paste
-filled buns made of wheat flour
which are shaped and coloured to resemble peaches. A single large
pastry is not often served, rather each guest is served their own.
In Korea, the traditional birthday dish is a seaweed soup. In
Western Russia, birthday children are served fruit pies with a
birthday greetings carved into the crusts. The Swedish birthday
cake is made like a pound cake
often topped with marzipan and decorated with the national flag. A
Dutch birthday pastry are fruit tarts (taarties) topped with
whipped cream. The Mexican birthday tradition involves a piñata
, a coloured brittle container filled with
sweets. In India it's common to rub a piece of cake icing on the
face of the birthday person, after the cake has been cut.
- A Typical Chinese Birthday Bash