Each year like clockwork we celebrate our birthday and the birthdays of those closest to us. But have you ever sat back and wondered why?
While we won’t get into the philosophical reasons for it, like our innate desire to create milestones in our lives, we will share the history of birthdays, when they began and how they’ve evolved.
From our research, the best guess as to when birthday celebrations started was with the ancient Egyptians sometime between 2345-2185 BCE. These weren’t exactly the same celebrations we know and love today. Based on the rough description that history books and other ancient texts provide us, these were celebrations for the current Pharaoh and were not based on his actual date of birth but rather when he became ruler of Egypt. The Egyptians viewed the day they were coronated as king to be the day they were born as a god.
The ancient Greeks got in on the action too. They provided birthday celebrations for their gods and goddesses, in particular Artemis, their lunar goddess. While the tradition was likely borrowed from the Egyptians, the Greeks added the tradition of providing lunar shaped cakes to the celebration. Eventually they added candles to the cakes to simulate the glow that emanates from the moon.
It wasn’t until the Romans that the birth of a common man was celebrated, sort of. For those in the Roman Empire, birthdays were a festival of the Genius, a spirit which came into the world with a child at birth, and were celebrated with cakes. These cakes weren’t exactly your run of the mill ones you get at a grocery store nowadays. They were made of oil, wheat, honey and grated cheese. Yep, you read that right, cheese. These celebrations weren’t for everyone though. Only men celebrated the day of their birth.
The Chinese began celebrating the first anniversary of a child’s birth with a ritual they called Zhuazhou around the year 1000 AD. As part of the ritual the relatives of the baby came to the home of the child to celebrate bringing modest gifts. It wasn’t elaborate or grand. Think of it as the modern day equivalent of just having a cake with close friends over for a kid’s birthday without much pomp and circumstance.
The tradition began to spread but it wasn’t until the 18th century that the present day birthday celebration started to take shape thanks to the Germans. It came in the form of something called Kinderfeste, a celebration of a kid’s birth complete with cake — the wealthy had the sugary kinds of confections we come to think of today — and candles. Much like today, there were as many candles as the number of years the child had be alive, with one caveat. There was an additional candle to signify the hope that the child would live another year. (We’ll leave it up to you to decide if that is sweet or slightly morbid.) Oh, and the somewhat unsanitary tradition of blowing on the cake to put out the candles? We can attribute that to the Germans as well.
The industrial revolution in the 19th century brought forth sugary cakes for all thanks to bakeries being able to mass produce their goods.
So we have candles, we have cakes and celebrations for all. The last piece of the puzzle came in 1924 when Robert Coleman published a song to the tune of “Good Morning to All”, originally published in 1893, with lyrics honoring a person’s birthday. Thus, “Happy Birthday to You” was born.
So there you have it. To sum up the journey to the kids birthday party of today, to quote the Grateful Dead, what a long strange trip it’s been. From the coronation of ancient Egyptian kings to some guy named Bob writing a song, it may have taken thousands of years to get here, but the celebration of a kid’s birthday is now truly a beautiful thing.