Birthday cake

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Birthday cake with lit candles

A birthday cake is a cake eaten as part of a birthday celebration. While there is no standard for birthday cakes, they are typically highly decorated layer cakes covered in frosting, often featuring birthday wishes ("Happy birthday") and the celebrant's name. In many cultures, it is also customary to serve the birthday cake with small lit candles on top, especially in the case of a child's birthday. Variations include cupcakes, cake pops, pastries, and tarts. In more recent years, it has become a common flavour for confectionery including ice cream, PopTarts, various cereal varieties among others. The flavour is usually vanilla with sweeter hints to imply sprinkles.


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

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.[citation needed]

In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany began to market one-layer cakes for customers' birthdays in addition to cakes for weddings.[citation needed] 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.

Birthday candles and contemporary rites[edit]

Modern celebration candles spelling out "Happy birthday"
Child with a birthday cake, c. 1930–1940

The practice of serving cake on birthdays is commonplace in many cultures. In contemporary Western cultures, birthday cakes for children are often topped with small candles, secured with special holders or simply pressed down into the cake. In the Anglosphere, the number of candles often corresponds to the age of the individual being celebrated, occasionally with one extra for luck.[2] An increasingly popular alternative is to use candles shaped as the numeral digits of the celebrant's age. Sparklers may also be used alongside or instead of the traditional wax candles.

The cake is usually presented with all the candles lit, at which point it is customary for the guests to sing Happy Birthday to You in unison, or an equivalent birthday song appropriate to the country. Upon the conclusion of the song, the celebrant is traditionally prompted to blow out the candles and make a wish, which is thought to come true if all the candles are extinguished in a single breath. Another common superstition holds that the wish must be made in silence, not to be shared with anyone else. [3][4][5]

Theories of origin[edit]

Though the exact origin of the birthday candle ritual is unknown, there are multiple theories which try to explain this tradition.

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.[6]

Kinder Fest.

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.'

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 onto the cake frosting when blowing out the candles.[4][5][12] They found that on average, the act increased the amount of bacteria by 14 times, but one of the researchers described this as "not a big health concern".[3]

Birthday cakes in different cultures[edit]

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[edit]


  1. ^ "Birthday Cakes: History & Recipes – Online article with an extensive bibliography".
  2. ^ Marcus, Ivan G. (1 March 2012). The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times. University of Washington Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-295-80392-0.
  3. ^ a b 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."
  4. ^ a b 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.
  5. ^ a b Elizabeth Sherman (2017-07-28). "Blowing Out Birthday Candles Could Ruin the Cake". Food & Wine. Retrieved 2017-12-03.
  6. ^ 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.
  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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