The history of cakes and candles began in ancient Greece. The Greeks made round cakes to honor Artemis, the goddess of the moon and the hunt. They often decorated the cake with either one lighted candle or several to represent the glow of the moon. Over time, other cultures began to make cakes and ate them for their taste, rather than to honor Artemis.
Later, the Romans had three different types of birthday celebrations: a personal, private one with family and friends; the birthdays of past and present imperial emperors who were honored with celebration; and finally, a person’s 50th birthday, which was particularly special and was celebrated with honey cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and cheese.
The first true birthday cake was believed to have been made in Germany in the Middle Ages. Before that time, cakes were almost solely for the celebration of weddings, but bakeries in the 1400’s began to market them for birthdays as well. Sweetened bread dough was given the shape of baby Jesus in swaddling cloth and was used to commemorate his birthday. This special birthday cake later reemerged in Germany as a Kinderfest or the birthday celebrations of a young child.
It was also here that cakes began to be layered, and alternate ingredients were used to make the cake sweeter than the usual coarse, bread-like cake that was usually found. This kind of cake was called Geburtstagorten by the Germans.
The 17th century was the period that introduced birthday cakes with a more elaborate detail of icing, layers, and decorations. However, these kinds of cakes were only affordable by the wealthy, upper class because of the high prices of ingredients. In the 18th century, food and cooking utensils started to become more accessible, and therefore, more affordable. With that, the price of cakes went down significantly and the quantity of cakes baked went up considerably.
As mentioned above, the Greeks were credited with putting candles on cakes to represent the glow of the moon. They also believed that the smoke from the lit candles carried their prayers and wishes to their gods who lived in the skies. However, some scholars do not attribute the Greeks for the tradition of putting candles on cakes. Some believe it started in Germany, where a candle was supposedly placed on the cake to represent “the light of life.”
Today, many cultures place candles on cakes out of tradition, as well as superstition. Usually, the number of candles on a cake represents the age being celebrated. The superstition is to make a silent wish and blow out all the candles at one time so the wish comes true. Many believe if the candles are not blown out in one breath or if the wish is told to anyone else, it will not come true.