A chocolate buttercream birthday cake
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The birthday cake has been an integral part of the birthday celebrations in western European countries since the middle of the 19th century, which extended to Western culture. 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 and 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 sweets, exist.
In classical Roman culture, 'cakes' of flat rounds made with flour containing nuts, leavened with yeast, and sweetened with honey were occasionally served at special birthdays, but more often at weddings as in Ancient Greece.
In early Europe, the words for cake and bread were virtually interchangeable; the only difference being that cakes were sweet while bread was not. In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany conceived the idea of marketing one-layer cakes for customers' birthdays as well as for only their weddings, and thus the modern birthday cake was born. 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 multiple layers, icing, 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
The cake, or sometimes a pastry or dessert, is served to a person on his or her birthday. In contemporary Western cultures, the birthday person blows out the candles on the cake after those celebrating have sung the birthday song.
The service of a birthday cake is often preceded by the singing of "Happy Birthday to You" in English speaking countries, or an equivalent birthday song in the appropriate language of that country. 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, "Happy Birthday to You" is sung and is followed by clapping, once for each year of the person's 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". In Ecuador, sometimes the birthday person will take a large bite off the birthday cake before it is served.
The birthday cake is often decorated with small taper candles, secured with special holders or simply pressed down into the cake. In North America, Australasia and the U.K., the number of candles is equal to the age of the individual whose birthday it is, sometimes with one extra for luck. Traditionally, the birthday person makes a private wish, which will be realized if all the candles are extinguished in a single breath.
In North America, birthday cake is often served with ice cream.
To represent a sharing of joy and togetherness, the cake is shared amongst all the guests attending the party. As a courtesy, it reflects one's hospitality and respect for guests.
Candles and theories of origin
Though the exact origins and significances of the candle blowing ritual and candles themselves are unknown, there are multiple theories as to the history of placing candles on cakes.
It is theorized that the tradition of placing candles on birthday cakes could be attributed to early Greeks, “In Ancient Greece, Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, as well as the moon (Her twin brother, Apollo, was god of the sun). It is said that cakes brought to the temple of Artemis were adorned with candles to make them glow like the moon. Many ancient cultures and many religions also believed that smoke was a vehicle to carry prayers up to the gods, and it is possible that this idea is the basis for our modern “make a wish” tradition.”  When further researching particularly Artemis you will find she is the goddess of nature, hunting, wild animals, and fertility. The word fertility may have you believing that she could be linked to, the birthday tradition, which celebrates with candles and cakes, however, she does not. In fact there were two, “festivals in honor of Artemis. The Brauronia held in Brauron; and the festival of Artemis Orthia, held in Sparta. The festival of Artemis Orthia involved young Spartan boys who would attempt to steal cheeses from the altar and as they tried they would be whipped. The meaning of Orthia and the nature of the ritual whipping has been lost and there is no logical explanation or translation. Among the epithets given to Artemis are: Potnia Theron (mistress of wild animals) mentioned by the great poet Homer; Kourotrophos (nurse of youth's); Locheia (helper in childbirth); Agrotera (huntress); and Cynthia (taken from her birthplace on Mount Cynthus on Delos). When young girls reached puberty they were initiated into her cult, but when they decided to marry, which Artemis was not against, they were asked to lay in front of the altar all the paraphernalia of their virginity; toys, dolls and locks of their hair, they then left the domain of the virgin goddess.” As you can see these festivals were no pieces of cake. Some scholars do not attribute the Greeks for the tradition of putting candles on cakes. Some believe it started in Germany, where a candle was supposedly placed on the cake to represent “the light of life”. 
Some believe the origin to have started in 1808 in Germany. This version of the tradition can be traced to Kinderfest (Kinder is the German word for 'children'), an 18th-century German birthday celebration for children. When it comes to this tradition there are doubts in exactly how much the traditions mirror the other. The similarity between this tradition and the actual birthday tradition we follow today only mirrors each other by the use of candles and cakes when celebrating life. The variation arises when one who is celebrating Kinderfest is celebrating simply a festival for children, or as some like to say, "A celebration of children". Where German children are taken to something similar to an auditorium, there they are free to celebrate another year in an atmosphere where the Germans believe the adults may protect the children, that is from the evil spirits that may attempt to steal innocent souls. In western culture though we do not simply just celebrate our youths’ birthdays in actuality we celebrate everyone’s.
Here are two more German accounts although these do not give an exact origin but merely documentation of the same tradition we continue today. Which to some may seem as though one of our fondest traditions could have stemmed from a drunken affair.
- In 1746, a large birthday festival was held for Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf of Marienborn Germany. 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."
- 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 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'.
In pagan culture it was believed evil spirits visited people on their birthdays. To protect the person having birthday from the evil effect, people used to surround him and make merry. A lot of noise used to be created in such parties to scare away the evil spirits. In those times there was no tradition of bringing gifts and guests attending the birthday party would 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 of honor. Later, flowers became quite popular as a Birthday gift.
Another reference to the tradition of blowing out the candles was documented in Switzerland in 1881. Researchers for the Folk-Lore Journal recorded various "superstitions" amongst the Swiss middle class. The following statement was recorded, "“A birthday-cake must have lighted candles arranged around it, one candle for each year of life. Before the cake is eaten, the person whose birthday it is should blow out the candles one after another.”
Birthday pastry cultural variations
Variations on the birthday pastry exist outside of Western culture. The Chinese birthday pastry is the sou bao (壽包), 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 sou bao. 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 and is often topped with marzipan and decorated with the national flag. Dutch birthday pastries are fruit tarts topped with whipped cream.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Birthday cake.|
- "Birthday Cakes: History & Recipes - Online article with an extensive bibliography".
- "History of the Birthday Cake-Hankering for History".
- "Birthday Candles".
- A True and Authentic Account of Andrew Frey (1753) page 15, full text available online.
- "Birthday Cakes Recipes".
- "History of Birthdays".
- Folk-Lore Journal, v.1 pt.12 (Dec. 1883) pp.380-381, full text available online.
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