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The History of the Birthday Cake

November 23, 2015

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Who doesn't love birthday cake? Whether it be vanilla, chocolate, seven-layered, sheet, or pineapple upside-down, birthday cake is the best. A lot of us take birthday cakes for granted, but actually the birthday cake has a long and rich (pun intended) history all of its own. 

Chocolate cake: the best thing ever? Chocolate cake: the best thing ever? Courtesy of sweetapolita.com

History

  • Cakes of some sort have been made for thousands of years, but until around the 15th century, the terms cake and bread were almost interchangeable.
  • Cakes were a bit sweeter than bread, but certainly did not exist in the form they do now.
  • For example, Ancient Greeks celebrated weddings by making cakes (or bread) sweetened with honey.
  • It wasn't until around the 15th century that the modern cake was really born. Bakers in Germany began to market sheet cakes, which had previously only been made for weddings, for birthdays as well.
  • Over the next hundred years, cakes became sweeter and more elaborate, ultimately making them only available to the wealthiest people. Thankfully, cakes these days are available to almost everyone!
  • Nowadays, birthday cakes can take pretty much any form, and more than anything are symbolic of togetherness and community celebration.

Sugar was not always readily available, so ancient peoples sweetened with honey when they could. Sugar was not always readily available, so ancient peoples sweetened with honey when they could. Courtesy of newhealthadvisor.com

Candles

  • We don't really now the exact history of the birthday candle tradition, but it's probably been around in some form dating back thousands of years. 
  • Some have speculated that the Ancient Greeks used candles to honor the goddess Artemis, but there's little actual evidence that Greeks used candles at all. 
  • The first historically known use of candles is attributed to the Chinese, who made candles from whale fat. 
  • Candles became popular in Europe in the Middle Ages, and were in frequent use around the time that the birthday cake was invented. 
  • The first historical account of putting candles on a birthday cake, with the candles representing the years of a person's life, occurred in 18th century Germany. 

Candles brighten up any celebration!Candles brighten up any celebration!Courtesy of nakatorestaurant.com

The Birthday Song

  • Singing the "Happy Birthday" song became popular in the early 20th century. It's traditionally sung as the birthday cake is presented to the guest of honor.
  • The melody and lyrics first appeared in print in 1912. 
  • There has been some controversy about the origin of the birthday song melody, but it is thought that a kindergarten teacher from Kentucky was the first to compose it (though she has not been officially credited). 
  • The song was first copyrighted in 1935, and was later bought by Warner/Chappell Music. 
  • In 2015, a federal judge ruled that the copyright was actually invalid, meaning we are now all free to sing the birthday song! 

The birthday song has only really been popular for a hundred years or so. The birthday song has only really been popular for a hundred years or so. Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Next time you're at a birthday party, give that cake a second look. Be thankful that not only the super wealthy have access to cake! Now go ahead and eat up! 

Have Your Say!

What's your favorite kind of birthday cake? Share in our comments section!