Why Do We Eat Birthday Cake?

Make a wish! The origins of birthday cake date all the way back to Ancient Greece. 

slices of birthday cake on plates on purple tablecloth
Photo: Blaine Moats/Meredith

Cake is essential to any birthday celebration, but has it always been? Turns out, this tradition has its roots in Ancient Greece, but it's made quite an evolution since then. We're digging into the history of birthday cakes and answering the question: Why do we eat cake on our birthday?

The History of Birthday Cakes

The Greeks Start The Candle Tradition

Long before celebrating birthdays became a common tradition, the Ancient Greeks were decorating cakes with candles as an act of worship to Artemis, the goddess of the moon and the hunt. The candles were meant to make the cakes glow like the moon, and it was believed that the smoke from the candles would carry their wishes up to the gods.

The Romans Begin Celebrating Birthdays

The Romans were the first to begin celebrating the birthdays of ordinary people. Prior to this, birthdays were reserved for religious figures. Roman citizens celebrated the birthdays of their family members and friends, and public holidays were created for famous citizens.

Any Roman man turning 50 years old would receive a special cake baked with wheat flour, nuts, yeast, and honey. Women's birthdays were not celebrated anywhere until about the 12th century.

Germany Invents The Modern Birthday Celebration

The Germans are largely credited as the originators of the contemporary birthday celebration. In the 18th century, children's birthdays were celebrated in a tradition known as "Kinderfest." There were no gifts, but there were well wishers, and a cake was decorated with a candle for each year of life as well as an extra to represent the year to come. These candles were lit in the morning and replaced as they burned throughout the day. At the end of the day, the child would blow them out and make a wish, much like the modern tradition.

The Industrial Revolution Popularizes Birthday Cakes

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, cakes were considered a luxury good. But mass production made it possible for everyone, not just the wealthy, to partake in cake on their birthday. Ingredients became more widely available, which allowed bakeries to offer pre-made cakes at lower prices.


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