Today birthdays are celebrated occasions. We have elaborate birthday parties where family and friends come together to honour the person whose birthday it is. Guests bring gifts and in return have lots of fun playing party games and eating birthday cake and ice cream. Often times the guests go home with party favours, little gifts wrapped up in a party bag. However, hundreds of years ago birthdays were not at all considered a joyous occasion, especially in Europe.
Centuries ago people shuddered in fear when their birthday approached. During that time people believed that on your birthday evil spirits would come around and hurt you. To fend off these evil spirits birthday parties were planned so people could be surrounded with friends and family. Guests usually arrived with small gifts along with food for all to share. Noisemakers were used to scare away the evil spirits.
During the Middle Ages birthdays started becoming more of a celebration instead of an occasion of fear. Birthday parties were still not commonplace among the peasant class. Only the very wealthy threw birthday parties, as did the aristocrats and royals.
It really wasn’t until the Reformation that birthday parties began to be more widespread in England. This is when birthday cakes were baked for the birthday person, filled with little tokens of fortune for the eager guests to find. Actually, the Greeks made the first celebratory cakes. They were baked to honour the birthdays of their gods and goddesses.
If you were wondering if the Greeks were the ones who came up with the idea of putting candles on the cakes, the answer is “yes.” The cake the Greeks baked for their god Artemis was the first one that had lit candles on the top. Aside from candles the custom was to bury items like rings, coins and even thimbles in the cakes for the guests to find.
Western culture adopted the tradition of baking birthday cakes in the mid 19th Century. This has continued on ever since and the birthday cake is now a central part of any birthday celebration. The candles are lit on the cake, and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” while the birthday person makes a wish and then blows out the candles.
There are a few rituals that must be followed (based on superstition) that have to do with what happens when the cake is cut: if the knife comes in contact with the plate, or if the knife has pieces of cake clinging to it when it is pulled out, the birthday person is supposed to plant a kiss on the nearest guest of the opposite sex.
Over the decades, birthday parties have evolved from small celebrations into full-blown elaborate events fit for a king. Throwing parties has become an art form among the wealthier classes. The custom of throwing birthday parties for children is thought to have started in Germany, with the party being called a Kinderfeste.
Most families today celebrate their children’s birthdays with a party. When a child turns 13 they are on their way to adulthood and are taken more seriously. This is a milestone birthday, which is celebrated in many cultures with great fanfare, often with printed invitations sent out in the mail and a more ceremonial celebration. This is the first of many other milestone birthdays to follow.