Birthdays are like belly buttons: everyone’s got one. Most of us have celebrated our share of ‘em, too.
But where does the idea of a birthday come from, anyway? When and where was the birthday invented? Are birthdays a modern celebration, or did Paleolithic people throw the ancient equivalent to a kegger on their big day too?
When were birthdays first celebrated?
Birthdays predate Christianity. The earliest record of birthday celebrations is way back in Pagan and Neopagan cultures.
Pagans believed that people tended to attract evil spirits on dates of great change – like birthdays. To keep the nastiness at bay, friends and family surrounded the birthday person with noisy merriment, which everyone knows that evil spirits can’t stand. So the very first Birthday parties weren’t so much about celebrating someone’s special day, but protecting them from marauding phantasms.
Early Christians weren’t too keen on the idea of birthdays, since they run a bit counter to the idea of humans being born with original sin. The pagan associations didn’t help much, either. But around the 4th century, Christians changed their minds and began to think birthdays were pretty neat, especially Jesus’. It was scheduled for the 25th of December to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, in the hopes of converting a pagan or two.
So who actually invented birthdays?
Birthdays as we recognise them today were most likely a joint effort; one part Pagan protectionism, one part Christian proselytism. Although as with all things dating back thousands of years, it’s impossible to say for certain.
Maybe it was just one person who was always on the lookout for an excuse for a knees-up? We’ll never know for sure – but we can see how birthday celebrations have evolved over the years.
Were birthdays celebrated in Ancient Rome?
Why, yes they did. But just the men. Female birthdays weren’t celebrated until much later, around the 12th century.
The Roman government created public holidays to celebrate the birthdays of famous (male) figures, while the common dude-in-a-toga just had a party with his friends and family.
Fiftieth birthdays were considered especially important in Ancient Rome (by the way, the life expectancy of the Romans was NOT 35 – they just had a terribly high child mortality rate, bringing the average way down). When you hit half a century, you would be treated with a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese. If only those industrious Romans had developed print-on-demand they could have enjoyed a personalised book celebrating their birthday too!
It was only a hop, skip, and a jump from ancient revelry to blowing out the candles on the birthday cake.
Where did birthday cakes and candles come from?
There’s a couple of sweet theories on the table.
The early Greeks used to enjoy round or crescent-shaped cakes in honour of Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon. They lit candles on the cakes to make them glow, just like the moon in the sky.
Another theory is that birthday cake comes from the Germans, who used to make bread in the shape of baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth. They lit just one candle in the centre of the bread, symbolising “the light of life.”
It’s not too tricky a leap from either of these traditions to making a wish when you blow out the candles.
The Germans are the ones who perfected birthday celebrations as we know them today, too. In the late 18th century they celebrated Kinderfeste, which was a cake-and-candles party for kids on their birthdays. Kids got a candle for each year of age… plus one extra, to symbolise the hope for another party next year.