The Origin of Birthday Cake


Yesterday was my birthday! This of course means a celebration that will last for several weeks, as well as a related post. It’s all very exciting.

In other amazing news, I won’t be posting for a couple of weeks because I’m going on a cruise to the South Pacific. I’ll be sure to come back with some great topics to write about, as well as a tan. Everybody wins! Anyway, without further ado, let’s learn about birthday cake!

As you may remember from my wedding cake post, the words for ‘cake’ and ‘bread’ were virtually interchangeable in early Europe. Unsurprisingly, the only difference between the two was that cakes were sweet.  In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany conceived the idea of marketing cakes for customers’ birthdays, as well as for their weddings. They were mostly used for the birthdays of young children and thus these celebrations were referred to as Kinderfest. It was during this time period that cakes began to be layered and laden with new ingredients in order to render them sweeter and less bread-like. These kinds of cakes were called Geburtstagorten by the Germans.

Mmm, cake.

During the 17th century, the birthday cake took on a more contemporary form. These elaborate cakes, which possess the same attributes of modern cakes (multiple layers, icing, and decorations), were only available to the very wealthy. However, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, birthday cakes eventually became proletarianized as materials and tools became more advanced and more easily acquired.

The tradition of placing candles on cakes can be attributed to the Ancient Greeks, who baked cakes to honour Artemis, the goddess of the moon. The theory behind the practice was that the light from the candles made the cake itself glow like the  moon. It is also believed that the smoke from the candles carried their prayers to the Gods. This tradition has survived to a certain extent today. We may not say a prayer when we blow out birthday candles, but most of us do still make a wish.

The earliest reference to the tradition of blowing out birthday candles was documented Switzerland in 1881. Researchers for the Folk-Lore Journal recorded various “superstitions” amongst the Swiss middle class. The following statement was recorded, ““A birthday-cake must have lighted candles arranged around it, one candle for each year of life. Before the cake is eaten the person whose birthday it is should blow out the candles one after another.”

I hope you have enjoyed our rather short and sweet foray into the history of birthday cakes. I  also hope that it will tide you over until I’m back in the country and have constant access to my precious internet. See you all in a fortnight!

 

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