The History of Birthdays

Miguel Vallejo Duque 10ºD

We all celebrate our birthday. That special day when your friends and family come together to celebrate you living one more year. You eat cake, sing songs, and open presents. You go back to sleep, happy that you’ve lived all this time. But have you ever wondered why we celebrate like that? Why do we eat cake instead of sandwiches? Why we put candles on top of it? Let’s dig deeper and find out how the celebration of birthdays has evolved over the centuries. 

Let’s start at the very beginning. Early humans couldn’t celebrate their date of birth, as they had no way of knowing how long ago it was. They, of course, noticed that they all aged, but no one could pinpoint the exact date. However, as humans started learning more and more about the world around them, they noticed that certain patterns repeated themselves, such as the phases of the moon and the seasons of the year. They started compiling these events into the very first calendars. 

Cumpleaños, Pastel, Velas, Pastel De Cumpleaños

The Egyptians were the first to use these early ways of tracking dates to celebrate birthdays. Historians have found that they celebrated the date of birth of their Pharaoh. However, this wasn’t his date of birth as a human, but as a god. Citizens viewed their leader as a deity, and the day of their succession to the throne was also considered their ascension into godhood. It was this date that Egyptians celebrated. 

The Greeks developed the celebration further. Instead of only honoring their leaders, everyone was allowed to celebrate their birthday in honor of the god on whose date of birth they were born. There were a lot of gods in ancient Greek culture, and this is why every day had a god assigned. The tradition of a cake with candles to blow also came from this era. It was believed that on days of great change, evil spirits gathered. Because of this, friends and family came to the person whose birthday it was in order to ward off any presences. The cake, usually in the shape of a moon, and the candles, were at first an offering to the goddess Artemis, but it was used regardless. The act of blowing out the candles was a way to send one’s wishes and prayers to the gods. 

It was during the time of the Roman Empire that every man (and by that I mean only men, women were excluded until much later) was able to celebrate his own birthday. Not their ruler’s, not their god’s. To commemorate divine figures or important people, rulers established holidays in what would be the date of birth of said important entity. Because of their pagan origins, early Christians looked down upon and even despised birthday celebrations, and didn’t hold their own. Over the years, they began to get used to them and even celebrated them. Finally, they made a holiday to represent Jesus’ birthday, which is of course Christmas. 

The following centuries didn’t change birthday celebrations a whole lot. The main thing was that women could now enjoy the benefits of being birthday girls. However, by the end of the 18th century, German bakers would change an aspect of birthdays to make them more like what we do in the present day. They changed cakes from being an offering to the Greek gods and simply made them represent the amount of years the person was. The number of candles on top was equal to the age they were turning, as well as an extra one to represent the hopes of living until the next year. With the Industrial Revolution, ingredients for making cakes became easily accessible, so now everyone could bake a biscuit for their birthday. 

By this point, birthday parties are pretty much what we do today, but there is one thing that’s still missing. I am talking about the song, Happy Birthday to You. This piece has quite an interesting history. In the year 1893, two teachers from Kentucky called Patty and Mildred Hill composed a song for their young students, called “Good Morning to All”. This was intended to be sung to the kids every morning before their classes began. The song was published in a book called “Song Stories for Kindergarten”. A man called Robert Coleman found this song, and added some extra lyrics, which are the ones that we sing when we’re about to eat some cake. The song was claimed for copyright by the sisters who created it, and it only got into the public domain (free to use) a few years ago. 

Well, there you have it. That’s how birthday parties came to be. Next time you blow out some candles, be it with your family beside you or your friends over on video chat, remember the evil spirits the Greeks warded off, the Christians’ stubbornness, and all of the interesting things that happened while this tradition developed. And of course, have a happy birthday!  


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