Birthdays are a strange occasion. Celebrating the moment of your birth is a worthy thing although perhaps we should celebrate the woman who brought you into the world as she did all the work. Yet the stranger thing is how we celebrate birthdays. The most widespread way to celebrate birthdays is to have a birthday cake and sing happy birthday. Where did these traditions come from and why?
It appears that the idea of celebrating birth first came from the Egyptians. When a pharaoh was made pharaoh they were seen as becoming a god, a new birth in many ways. This idea was then taken by the Greeks who started to celebrate birth itself. They would add a dessert to the occasion as a tribute to the Goddess Artemis who was the goddess of the moon. A moon-shaped cake would be adorned with candles so that it could shine brightly like the moon. This explains why the cake is on fire at least.
In more modern times Germans introduced the idea of having a birthday cake with the number of years on it and an additional candle that was supposed to mean a great year ahead. The germans had a strange tradition where the cake was presented and lit in the morning but the candles would not be blown out until after dinner that day. This meant that parents had to constantly replace the candles on the cake throughout the day.
Cakes didn’t become commonplace until after the Industrial revolution. Before that ingredients were simply too expensive but today we usually have cake whenever we can find an excuse. Of course, a birthday cake would be nothing without the awkward singing of the Happy Birthday song.
The Happy Birthday song actually originated as the Good Morning song and somewhere along the way the lyrics changed. The Good Morning song was written by Patty Smith Hill, a kindergarten teacher, and her older sister. However, in 1934 and 1935 the song was copyrighted meaning that anytime (until 2016) the song was used in a movie a royalty had to be paid. It was for this reason too that chain restaurants who come out with a cake and awkwardly sing don’t use the same song instead opting for “For he’s a jolly good fellow” or a different happy birthday tune, to avoid a lawsuit.
In 2016 the song was finally put in the public domain after Werner Music paid $14 million and now you can sing it anywhere you like. Before 2016 Werner was earning about $2 million per year from royalties of that song alone. It is no surprise as it is believed to be the most sung English song in the world. Studies have also shown that it makes cake taste better.
So it appears that we can thank the ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks for the invention of Birthday Cake and some American teachers for the Happy Birthday song. At least the German tradition of lighting the candle all day didn’t take off as that would have been a real nuisance. One tradition that the Germans did introduce was the idea of blowing out the candles and making a wish. The idea that you must never share the wish you make with anyone or it won’t come true was started there and continues to this day.
The next time you have a birthday see what other traditions you carry out that you have no idea why you are pursuing. If you are honoring the Egyptians, Greeks, Americans, and Germans every time you celebrate try to find out who else you are honoring and maybe just maybe honor your mother who brought you into this world too.