Shedding Light on the Origin of Birthday Candles

Published February 16, 2021
Cake with Birthday Candles

The origin of birthday candles and blowing them out is obscured in history. However, there are stories and folklore of this candle tradition that may shed light on birthday candle customs.

Origin of Birthday Candles and Ancient Greece Connection

Ancient Greece is often credited with placing candles on a birthday cake. The story goes that to honor the moon goddess, Artemis, the Greeks baked round cakes. The addition of lighted candles was supposed to emulate the glowing of the moon. When the candles were blown out, it was believed that the smoke carried their prayers to the gods on Mt Olympus.

What Do Birthday Candles Represent?

The symbolism of birthday candles is debatable. From a Christian point-of-view, the candles represent the Light of divinity. In some superstitions, it is believed that a person is vulnerable to the underworld or evil on their birthday. The malevolent spirits seek out the person with the mission of stealing their soul.

When Was the Birthday Candle Invented?

There is no exact date known of the invention of the birthday candle. Some researchers point to Germany as the modern origin, while others reference the 18th century writing of Andrew Frey.

birthday cake with lit candles

German Birthday Candles

German lore is often credited as the beginning of birthday cake candles. German traditions celebrated the birthday person from sunrise to sunset. The person was exempt from any daily chores and celebrated their day as they wished (within reason).

Lighting of Birthday Candles

One candle was lit to represent each year of life. The candles then remained lit all day and weren't extinguished until sunset. Another German story tells of a single candle being placed in the center of the birthday cake to represent Christ as the Light of the world.

Birthday Candles Protect the Celebrated

The candles are lit to protect the person and a party is held, so that the sounds of joyful festivities repel the evil spirits. The guests gather around the birthday person, creating a barrier of happiness and cheer that is impenetrable by evil doers.

Count's 1746 Birthday Celebration

On page 15 of A True and Authentic Account of Andrew Frey, the 1746 birthday celebration of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Marienborn is described with detailed attention paid to the Count's very large birthday cake. Frey writes, "…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"

Documented Swiss Folklore of Blowing Out Birthday Candles

There is a documented account of the tradition of blowing out birthday candles. In 1881, The Folklore Society (Great Britain) published, The Folk-Lore Journal, a research journal of various folklore and superstitions. In the chapter titled, Continental Folk-Lore Notes, researchers documented several birthday traditions practiced in Switzerland.

Candles Blown Out Before Cake Could Be Eaten

From various conversations the researchers had with middle-class Swiss, they discovered the tradition of lighting birthday candles on a cake. Found on page 380, the researchers write, "A birthday-cake must have lighted candles arranged around it, one candle for each year of life." The text goes on to describe how the cake cannot be eaten until the birthday boy or girl blows out each candle, one by one, in a solemn manner.

Tradition of Blowing Out Birthday Candles

It is impossible to know the origins of the tradition of blowing out birthday candles. It is believed that the birthday gal or guy must blow out all the candles to have their birthday wish come true and this is must be done in one breath.

Obscure Origin of Birthday Candles and Traditions

There are many stories of birthday candles and traditions. The origin is lost in history, but the tradition is still practiced and enjoyed as a way to celebrate this special day.

Shedding Light on the Origin of Birthday Candles