Why Do We Blow Out Candles to Celebrate Birthdays?01. Jun 2015
It has often been said there are very few genuine surprises left in life. In our digital age it has become incredibly easy to satisfy our natural human curiosity, and so there just aren’t many mysteries or facts remaining that we simply take for granted.
However, blowing out candles on a birthday cake is one of those rituals nearly everybody takes part in and nobody seems to question. Perhaps you, like us, had never thought to ask the question because it’s just something you do, year after year.
Well, we recently did some digging to find out once and for all why this tradition is so pervasive in many cultures and ended up having trouble finding one definitive reason! Here are the three top theories of how it all began, so you can take your pick of the one that seems most likely and impress your party guests with this new piece of trivia.
Many people believe that the very first birthday to be celebrated in this way was that of the Greek moon goddess Artemis. It is thought that to honour her, early Greeks brought cakes adorned with candles to her sacred temple on the sixth day of every lunar month. However, it is commonly accepted that the candle wasn’t invented until the third century BCE in China so while the idea of Artemis’ birthday celebrations is a nice one, there is little evidence to support this theory.
Fire has been used ritually since it was first discovered. It is believed that ancient pagans may have played an extra special role in establishing candle-blowing as a key part of birthday celebrations, as the smoke from ritual candles was intended to carry their prayers to the gods in the sky. They also believed that the smoke could ward off evil spirits, but it is likely the smoke’s direct route to the heavens that leads some to draw the connection between pagan ritual and making a birthday wish.
The strongest evidence belongs to the German tradition of Kinderfest, which has its roots in the eighteenth century. An event for children, this birthday tradition closely mirrors how we celebrate these occasions today. There is also a connection to the superstitious element from the pagan theory: The children were taken to a large room where they were free to celebrate in a safe space protected from evil spirits in search of innocent souls. Whether or not Kinderfest actually saved children, there is no disputing that by 1799 Germans were celebrating in this way, as Goethe wrote in a letter from that year:
“…when it was time for dessert, the prince’s entire livery… carried a generous-size torte with colourful flaming candles… as is the case with children’s festivities of this kind.”
No matter which theory you believe, it is probably worth mentioning, too, that in this day and age of hypervigilance when it comes to germs, nobody seems to care about the splashes of breath and candle wax that end up on the cake! Perhaps that is one aspect of the tradition that is best left unquestioned.