How did you celebrate your last birthday? Chances are you had a party that featured a cake decorated with candles. Did you ever take time to think where these traditions got their start? If you guessed in the Victorian era, you’d be wrong. Most are much older.
Let’s examine the origins of some of our favorite birthday traditions.
The first birthday parties were celebrated in ancient times among nobility.
Pagans believed surrounding oneself during periods of change with friends and family helped keep evil spirits away. Because of this connection to paganism, birthdays weren’t part of the Christian tradition until the Middle Ages. It should come as no surprise that male birthdays were celebrated for centuries before women and girls also had their birthdays commemorated.
On a more morbid level, birthdays were the celebration of someone having lived for another year. This isn’t something we think much about today, but would have been a big deal in a day-and-age ravaged by communicable disease, no medical care for accidents and/or warfare.
Parties as we think of them today started to take shape in the mid-19th century when the middle class began to incorporate many upper-class traditions into their lives.
Cake and Candles
The ancients lit candles as symbols of light penetrating the darkness, as tribute to their gods or to chase away evil spirits.
The Germans began the tradition of Kinderfeste in the late 18th century. It had some aspects in common with a modern birthday party – namely a cake with the number of candles corresponding to the child’s age.
Once baking powder was invented in the mid-19th century, it became possible to produce layer cakes. Bakeries also began selling pre-baked cakes to customers.
Singing Happy Birthday
Although the song may have been a variation of an earlier tune, “Happy Birthday” has been attributed to Patty and Mildred Hill. The sisters, who were teachers, wrote a song called “Good Morning To All” in 1893 that was intended to be sung at the beginning of the school day.
The song underwent several variations and eventually became “Happy Birthday.” Variations of the song appeared in songbooks in the early 20th century.
The tune has undergone a number of copyright battles to determine who owns rights to the work. The Hills sued for copyright in 1935 and won.
Most recently, Warner Bros. held the copyright and claimed the it didn’t expire until 2030. The company was sued by a filmmaker producing a documentary on the song “Good Morning to All.” She claimed Warner Bros. falsely held its copyright.
A judge ruled in 2015 that Warner Bros.’ copyright claim was invalid. The 1935 copyright only applied to a single arrangement of the song, not the entire song. In 2016, “Happy Birthday” became public domain after a court ruling.
Here are two examples of Edwardian birthday cards.
Updated: 28 October 2020