Have you ever wondered where the celebration of birthdays started? In the simplest of terms, it’s a time for friends and family to come together and celebrate you, the anniversary of your birth, and another year of your life under your belt.
But there’s so much more to it than that.
It’s been constantly evolving throughout, turning into what we know it to be today. This widely used tradition started somewhere and that’s what we are looking to uncover here today.
We’ve pieced together the hypotheses of several historians, making this one huge piece of our culture a little bit more comprehensible.
Here’s what we know:
1. Birthdays didn’t begin until calendars were created.
Early civilizations had no way to keep track of time other than by using the moon, sun, or some other important event. This made it difficult for them to pay attention to the anniversary of a person’s birth.
As time went on, everyone realized that they all experienced the effects of aging, they just didn’t have a means to mark a special milestone for it.
It wasn’t until ancient people began taking note of the moon’s cycles that they began paying attention to the change in seasons as well. They also noticed this pattern repeated itself over and over again. They began marking these changes in time.
This is what bore the first calendars, which marked time changes and other special days. From this type of tracking system came the ability to celebrate birthdays and other significant events and anniversaries each year.
2. It all started with the Egyptians.
Scholars who study the Bible say that the earliest mention of a birthday was around 3,000 B.C.E. and was in reference to a Pharaoh’s birthday. But further study implies that this was not their birth into the world, but their “birth” as a god.
When Egyptian pharaohs were crowned in ancient Egypt, they were considered to have transformed into gods. This was a moment in their lives that became more important than even their physical birth.
Pagans, such as the ancient Greeks, believed that each person had a spirit that was present on the day of his or her birth. This spirit kept watch and had a mystic relation with the god on whose birthday that particular individual was born.
3. You can thank Greeks for all those birthday candles.
Gods and goddesses were a huge part of Greek culture. Greeks offered many tributes and sacrifices to appease these gods. The lunar goddess, Artemis, was no different.
As a tribute to her, the Greeks would offer up moon-shaped cakes adorned with lit candles to recreate the glowing radiance of the moon and Artemis’ perceived beauty. The candles also symbolized the sending of a signal or prayer. Blowing out the candles with a wish is another way of sending that message to the gods.
4. Birthdays first started as a form of protection.
It is assumed that the Greeks adopted the Egyptian tradition of celebrating the “birth” of a god. They, like many other pagan cultures, thought that days of major change, such as these “birth” days, welcomed evil spirits. They lit candles in response to these spirits almost as if they represented a light in the darkness. This implies that birthday celebrations started as a form of protection.
In addition to candles, friends and family would gather around the birthday person and protect them from harm with good cheers, thoughts, and wishes. They would give gifts to bring even more good cheer that would ward off evil spirits. Noisemakers were also used to scare away the unwanted evil.
5. The ancient Romans were the first to celebrate the birth of the common “man.”
This seems to be the first time in history where a civilization celebrated the birth of non-religious figures. Regular Roman citizens would celebrate the birthdays of their friends and family members. The government, however, created public holidays in honor of more famous citizens.
Any Roman turning 50 years old would receive a special cake baked with wheat flour, olive oil, grated cheese, and honey. But an important thing to note is that only men would experience this birthday celebration. Female birthdays were not celebrated until about the 12th century.
6. Birthdays were first considered to be a pagan ritual in Christian culture.
In Christianity, it is believed that all people are born with “original sin.” That, in combination with early birthdays being tied to pagan gods, led Christians to consider birthdays to be celebrations of evil. This lasted for the first few hundred years of the existence of the Christian Church.
It wasn’t until the 4th century that Christians abandoned that way of thinking and began celebrating the birth of Jesus, also know as Christmas. Celebrating the birth of Jesus was partly enacted to recruit those who already celebrated Saturnalia, the Roman holiday.
7. German bakers invented the birthday cake as we know it today.
At this point, birthdays had been celebrated around the world, even in China, where a child’s first birthday was more special than most.
Kinderfeste, which started in the late 18th century, was the name for a German birthday party that is closest to today’s style of parties. This party was held for German kids, or “kinder,” and featured a birthday cake adorned with candles.
Kids were given one candle atop the cake for each year they had been alive, plus one for the hope of living for at least one more year. Blowing out these candles while making a wish was a big part of these celebrations.
8. The Industrial Revolution made a way for everyone to enjoy sugary cakes.
Sugary cakes were a birthday commodity only wealthy people had access to for quite some time. This was because the ingredients these sugary treats required were considered to be a luxury.
Then, the time in our history known as the Industrial Revolution allowed birthday celebrations in all cultures to proliferate. The required ingredients became more widely available. This, in combination with advances in mass production, allowed bakeries the option of offering customers pre-made cakes at lower prices.
9. The tune of “Happy Birthday” was actually a remix of sorts.
Two sisters, Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill, who happened to both be Kentucky school teachers wrote a song called “Good Morning To All” in 1893 that was published in a book for other school teachers. The original intent of this song was to be sung in class by students before starting the day.
Of course, when anything catches on, there are variations that are made. This song is no different. Robert Coleman published a songbook in 1924 that featured this song with a few extra lyrics that quickly came to overshadow the original lyrics. These new lyrics to that popular old tune became what we know as “The Birthday Song” today.
In 1933, this new version was used in an Irving Berlin musical. One of the founding Hill sisters sued on the grounds that they held the copyright to the tune. They won the case and the copyright still holds to this day. Some even believe this song is under copyright until the year 2030. Copyright proceeds are split with the copyright owner and the Hill’s estate, estimated at around $2 million a year.
A few BONUS birthday fun facts:
10. Marie Antoinette should not be credited for the quote “Let them eat cake.”
This is a quote many people today attribute to Marie Antoinette, but it wasn’t until 50 years after her death that French critic and journalist, Alphonse Karr claimed that it started with her.
Despite these sourced rumors, this phrase actually had its first appearance in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography called “The Confessions.” The book describes Rousseau’s fear of entering a bakery due to his improper dress.
The book leads up to this famous quote like this, “Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: ‘Let them eat brioche.’”
At the time this book was written, Antoinette was just a little girl. It is theorized by some that she read Rousseau’s book and was quoting it, but others, like Antoinette biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, disapprove of this theory.
It was taken offensively, as if Antoinette meant it as an insult to the lower class citizens, but Fraser knew that kind of callousness and ignorance wasn’t Antoinette’s style.
11. October 5 is the most common birth date in the U.S.
If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Nine months before October 5 is New Year’s Eve, a pretty common conception date.
On another note, May 22 is considered to be the least common birthday in the U.S.
12. The lack of history on early birthday celebrations may be due to a lack of wealth.
There is a theory that the nobles were the only people who could afford to have birthday celebrations. Anyone other than these nobles were not likely to have been written about, and thus, remembered. So it could be that many birthday celebrations were had and there was no one to document them.
It is believed by many historians that this “nobility only” result could be the reason behind the custom of wearing a birthday “crown.”
A Timeless Tradition
Today, it’s hard to imagine that our beloved birthday traditions were not always around. But it all had to begin somewhere.
The cake, the candles, the presents, and the song all evolved over time to collectively create what we know as a birthday celebration. It is almost as if thousands and thousands of years of people and cultures all decided to play a huge game of “Telephone” right up until present day.
It’s interesting to think about how this contemporary version of a birthday celebration we have today will change and evolve over the next several hundred years.
Now that’s food for thought.
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