The Origin of Birthday Candles

Who doesn't love the tradition of making a wish and blowing out birthday candles? But where did this age-old ceremony get its start?

Many scholars think it dates back to ancient Greece. Paying tribute to Artemis, the goddess of the moon, the Greeks baked round cakes and added candles to symbolize moonlight. They may have believed the smoke carried their prayers to the heavens.

Another source for early birthday candles comes from Germany. In the middle ages Germans would celebrate "Kinderfest" children's birthdays with simple bread-like cakes. A single candle was placed on the cake symbolizing the "light of life."

In 1746 Count Ludwig Von Zinzindorf hosted a grand birthday party. A guest at the party wrote about the experience, "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."

By the mid 1800s the custom of blowing out candles on birthday cakes gained popularity across Europe. The Swiss in the 1880s seem to have started the tradition that birthday cakes should have a lighted candle for each year of the celebrant's life and that the candles should be blown out by the person who's birthday it was, before a single slice was eaten. In fact the Swiss considered it bad luck to eat the birthday cake before all the candles were blown out.

Whatever the origins, birthday cakes and candles are a simple joy that allow a moment of reflection on a special day once every year.

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