ToDAY (May 19) is by birthDAY. My 50th birthDAY. A birthday celebration is not a celebration without a cake. Birthday cakes come in so many different shapes and sizes—some with breathtaking cascades and bursts of sugar flower anemones, peonies and lilies to others with curvy tiers accented with whimsical characters and themes. Just like a birthday celebrant, a cake has its own personality. ♣
Cakes, candles, and birthday celebrations stem back to the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans, and extended into the Western culture.  Cake and bread were considered pretty much the same food with the only difference being that cake was sweet. The tradition of putting candles on a cake is believed to have begun in Ancient Greece. The Greeks made round cakes to honor Artemis, the moon goddess. They placed lit candles to represent the glow of the moon, and the smoke from the candles carried their prayers and wishes to the Gods.
The Romans were the first civilization to celebrate birthdays for non-religious figures. Romans celebrated birthdays for friends and families, and the government created public holidays to observe birthdays of prominent citizens. Everyone regardless of social status was able to celebrate a birthday with a cake. The Romans served flat rounds (cakes) made with flour and nuts, leavened with yeast, and sweetened with honey. Those celebrating a 50th birthday received a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and grated cheese. Yummy!
Of historical interest to me—perhaps to you too—the Christian Church considered birthday celebrations evil for a few hundred years of its existence due to original sin and as it was considered a pagan ritual. Around 4 AD, Christians began to celebrate the birthday of Jesus as the holiday of Christmas, and birthday parties were accepted by the church.
The first birthday cake as we know it today was made in modern-day Germany. In the 15th century, German bakeries made one-layer cakes for birthdays. A candle was placed on the cake to represent the light of life. By the 17th century, a cake was common for birthday celebrations. These cakes—which took on ingredients (flour, sugar, and eggs) and shape of contemporary cakes (layers, icing, and decorations like flowers)—were considered a luxurious splurge, mostly for the wealthy due to high price of the ingredients.
The journey of the birthday cake mirrors culinary and confectionery developments. In the 18th century, food (including sugar for these cakes), materials, and tools (for instance, baking utensils) became more accessible and affordable. In addition, the industrial revolution led to advances in mass production, leading to large bakeries that catered to pre-orders. The result: the price of cakes went down and the number of cakes baked went up.
Today, most cultures celebrate birthdays with cake, candles, and a birthday song. The number of candles is usually the age of the celebrant. Some make a silent wish while blowing out all the candles—in one breath—and it can not be told to anyone or it will not come true!
As I turn 50, what a wondeful gift to celebrate another year of life with family and friends. And…a bit of history about birthday celebrations—let them live on!
Images: 1. My mom Cristiana Maria made my favorite: Cake with fresh lemons and raspberries from my parents’ home garden. The berry sauce drips on the sides. Delic! 2. Celebrating my birthday with family. (Photo credit: H. Lehrheuer)
**All photos and images are copyrighted work of Venilde Jeronimo unless otherwise noted.