Thinking about the various ways we have celebrated Emily’s birthday over the years inspired me to jot a few notes here on customs and origins. As best as I can, that is, since the only point historians seem to agree on is that the exact origins for birthday customs are impossible to trace! Here are the more common stories.
The prevailing opinion seems to be that the Romans were the first civilization to celebrate birthdays for friends and families, while the government created public holidays to observe the birthdays of more famous citizens. Those celebrating a 50th birthday party would receive a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese.
When pharaohs were crowned in ancient Egypt they were considered to have transformed into gods. This divine promotion made their coronation date much more important than their birth into the world. Scholars have pointed to the Bible’s reference of a Pharaoh’s birthday as the earliest known mention of a birthday celebration (around 3,000 B.C.E.), but some believe this is referencing the pharaoh’s coronation date, since that would have been his “birth” as a god.
To some cultures thousands of years ago, birthdays were considered a time when the bad spirits were able to harm you as this day changed a person’s life. It was believed that the only way to keep the bad spirits at bay was to have your friends and family around you with their good wishes and present giving. At these protective gatherings, people would use crude noisemakers to scare off the evil spirits lurking about. The custom of lighting candles and torches also began, people believing that gods lived in the sky and a fire light that is later extinguished would send a sign to these gods.
Birthday celebrations began to take on a more positive tone during the Middle Ages, but they were still very rare and usually only celebrated by royalty or the very wealthy. During the Reformation, the recognition of one’s birth-day began to be more common. In England, people began making cakes for the birthday person, often hiding coins, rings and thimbles inside.
Another story of birthday candle origin traces to Ancient Greece, when people brought cakes adorned with lit candles to the temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The candles were lit to make them glow like the moon, a popular symbol associated with Artemis. Many ancient cultures also believed that smoke carried their prayers to the heavens. Today’s tradition of making wishes before blowing out your birthday candles may have started with that belief.
Let’s not discount the origins accredited to the Germans! In 1746, Count Ludwig Von Zinzindorf celebrated his birthday with an extravagant festival, including a cake and candles: “there was a Cake as large as any Oven could be found to bake it, and Holes made in the Cake according to the Years of the Person’s Age, every one having a Candle stuck into it, and one in the Middle.”
The Germans also celebrated with birthday candles during Kinderfest, a birthday celebration for children in the 1700s. A single birthday candle was lit and placed on the cake to symbolize the child’s “light of life.”
The melody of “Happy Birthday to You” comes from the song “Good Morning to All” written and composed by Kentucky siblings Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. They published the tune in their songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. It’s unclear who changed the words to “Happy Birthday To You,” but in 1933 the altered lyrics appeared in an Irving Berlin musical. A surviving Hill sister sued, arguing that they held the copyright to the song. They won the case, and the courts have ruled that copyright still holds today.