The lights dim and a hush falls over the party. Suddenly a cake, aglow with candlelight, is brought out and singing starts.
The birthday child’s face lights up as the cake is placed in front of them. The song ending, someone yells, “Make a wish!” The child closes their eyes momentarily, and blows out the candles. Let them eat cake!
Most likely, you are familiar with this scene. From Sweet Sixteens, to Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, candles play a significant role in birthday celebrations across the world. Yet despite their widespread usage, the connection between candles and birthdays is shrouded in mystery and legend. We’ve sorted through the rumors, hearsay, and myth to bring you the true, icing-laden history of the humble birthday candle.
The earliest stories of candles and cakes are linked to the ancient Greeks. Once a month, they would celebrate the birth of Artemis, goddess of the moon by making round cakes. Lit candles would be placed on the cake to represent a glowing moon and their smoke would carry wishes and prayers to the sky-dwelling gods.
The cakes offered to Artemis would not be recognizable as the cakes we enjoy today though. It was around the 1600s when cakes changed to be layered, covered in frosting, and richly decorated. At the time, a cake like that required high-quality elements and production, meaning it was a luxury for the super-wealthy. It wasn’t until the Industrial age (the 1760s onward) that mass production made ingredients and equipment cheap enough for the common man.
The first well-documented case of candles being placed on a birthday cake comes from Germany in 1746. A man named Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf held a lavish birthday celebration at his home which included a large cake with candles stuck into it, and the number of candles corresponded to his age. From there, birthday cakes and candles seem to have spread throughout Germany and then through Europe. It’s not clear how and why, but by about the 1850s records start to appear.
That was the decade when birthday celebrations crossed the Atlantic to the USA. For a long time Americans had resisted the tradition, but by the 1850s the trend had caught on. And by 1871 birthday candles had made it from Germany to America. A cake would be decorated with the number of candles equal to a child’s age, and while the guests sang hymns the child would blow the candles out, one by one.
From there, the tradition has gently evolved into today’s song-singing, wish-making practices. Modern birthday candles are short, small taper candles made of non-toxic paraffin wax that is safe to drip into the frosting. There are some fun variations like trick candles which relight after being blown out (by adding magnesium in the wick which can ignite as the wick smolders) or edible candles. Or numeral-shaped candles—the smart way to cut down on the number of candles to put on a cake, especially with life-expectancy on the rise!
One last fun, if unhygienic note: a 2017 study from the Journal of Food Research found that blowing out birthday candles on a cake increased the amount of bacteria on the icing by 1400%. That’s bacteria coming out of the mouth of the individual blowing and onto the top of the cake. Don’t worry though, the good folks at The Atlantic called up one of the study’s authors and found that the germ-covered cake is still safe to eat!
We hope you enjoyed this slice through cake and candle history! As a candle manufacturer, the history of candles fascinates us. We don’t make birthday candles, but if you enjoy scented candles, we’re always here to take you on your scent journey. Check out our suscription or browse individual candles by scent. They make a wonderful birthday gift for you or someone you love.
Until next time, we've got some cake to eat!
—The Keap Team