Why We Put Candles on a Birthday Cake
When I was turning 11, my birthday cake was comprised of 11 chocolate eclairs, laid end to end across the dining room table in the shape of an 11. One birthday candle was placed in each eclair.
While this may sound like a cute and clever idea, when I went to blow out the candles at the end of 'Happy Birthday,' I failed to blow out a single candle. I was devastated. And my family still won't let me live it down, 20 years later.
As a candlemaker and the owner of Scented Designs, a candle company in San Jose, California, I spend a lot of time thinking about candles.
Our Birthday Cake candle is one of our best-selling candles (I mean, who doesn't love rainbow sprinkles + cake?!), and at one point it got me wondering:
So why do we put candles on a cake to blow out anyway?
Surely for some other reason than to embarrass pre-teens who just want their birthday wish to come true.
I did some research, and here's what I discovered.
History of Candles on a Cake
Like many modern-day traditions, blowing candles out for a birthday has its roots in long-ago customs. At least, so the story goes.
Some sources say that birthday candles go all the way back to Ancient Greek times, when it was common for worshippers to light candles to the different gods and goddesses.
One such goddess was Artemis, the goddess of wild animals and the hunt, commonly associated with the moon as one of her symbols. To honor her, her worshippers would bake round cakes in the shape of a full moon and then place lit candles on the cake to represent the moonlight.
Then, when the candles were blown out, the smoke would carry their wishes up to Artemis and the other gods and goddesses.
Pretty cool, huh? (You caught me, I'm a total mythology nerd, and I love a good origin story!)
Another story says that the birthday cake and candles tradition actually started in Germany with celebrations like Kinderfest, which celebrated children's birthdays with sweets and two candles: one representing the light of life and one representing the years in their future.
Even so, these candles were not blown out right away, but were rather lit in the morning and supposed to burn all day to represent life.
Some of the first written evidence suggesting Germany was the origin of the birthday candles was of a certain Count Ludwig. For his birthday celebration in the early 18th century, he had a massive cake made with candles stuck into it to represent each year of his life.
It certainly seems like that tradition has stuck around even though it seems to be the opposite of the Kinderfest candles (life lived vs. life still to go).
A couple of hundred years later, and, voila, the birthday candles tradition had made its way to the United States thanks to (many say) German immigrants.
Here, Americans started adding their own traditions to the birthday cake custom, including by reciting and singing verses to go along with the cake. But I think the history and modern usage of the Happy Birthday song (using it to wash our hands during COVID...?) is for another post.
Ready to learn more about birthdays? Check out our Birth Month Flowers post (yes, you have birth month flower! ...Do you know what it is?)
Know someone with a birthday coming up? Check out our best-selling Birthday Cake Candle with Rainbow Sprinkles!
Also available in a Birthday Gift Box, woot woot!