The Origin of Birthday Cakes
Anticipation filled the room as Elaine took a knife into the cake for the celebration’s first slice. The 3-year old birthday girl, Aya, was staring wildly at the purple and pink unicorn icing her mom was slowly pulling away from the cake. Aya was told that the inside of her cake was a rainbow and she can’t wait to see it! I don’t know what she thought that meant, but we too were excited to see this sweet novelty. Elaine takes the slice away and turns the cake towards us-- and there it was, a beautiful 6-layered cake with 6 layers of rainbow colors. So cool!
SOURCE: Heather Baird/ Food Network
Layered rainbow cake
Food for the gods
Our favorite dessert has surely come a long way since the first cakes baked by ancient Egyptians. Egyptians, being one of the oldest civilizations, showed evidence of advanced baking skills as early as 2600 BC. Their version of cake was bread-like and sweetened with honey.
Source: Egyptian relief of bread
Hieroglyphics of ancient Egyptian bakers
The Egyptians are also credited with the invention of birthday celebrations. They believed that pharaohs became gods the day they were crowned. The coronation ceremonies were a celebration of their [new] “birth” as gods.
Ancient Greeks were quick to borrow the tradition to honor the birthday of their moon goddess, Artemis. The cake is round to symbolize the full moon, and it was lit with candles to represent the moon’s glow. They also believed that the smoke from blowing out the candles took their prayers to the heavens.
Later on, the Romans are then speculated to have brought the celebration for the gods to humans playing gods on earth. Riding on the 4th century approval of the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth (also known as “Christmas”), the Romans celebrated the birthdays of the rich and elevated in society.
The Romans also added yeast to the mixture which transformed the cake from a bread-like baked good to a lighter, softer, and spongier dessert. In the 16th Century, the Italians discovered the art of leavening without yeast by adding whipped eggs to the batter.
A tech-driven confectionery
The availability of flour, eggs, sugar, spices, and fat were important in the development of the modern birthday cake. Economic growth and globalization during the Industrial Revolution brought butter, cream, and raisins, making baking cakes more accessible to the average person.
A British chemist named Alfred Bird had a wife who was allergic to eggs and yeast. This led him to combine tartaric acid, cornstarch and sodium bicarbonate to make “baking powder.” This was a game changer. Cakes would now rise higher, be lighter, and baked much faster.
As mass production was the theme of the era, pre-baked cake mass produced in bakeries became a booming industry. Everyone could have a cake. Everyone could have a cake right away!
Mass produced cakes in the 1700’s
A dark root for a festive merrymaking
In 18th Century Germany, cake finally became central to the birthday festivities for German children in a celebration called “Kinderfest.” They believed that evil spirits visited the child during birthdays so the adults scared them away with a festive party.
On the morning of the child’s birthday, they would receive a cake with lighted candles that added up to their age, plus one. The extra candle was called the “light of life,” which stood for hope that the child would live for another full year. The candles were lit throughout the day, and were promptly replaced as they burned out.
At the time, many illnesses and diseases were not yet understood that the sudden death of a child was not an uncommon experience for families. So the birthday candles were not only a celebration of the child’s life, but also an expression of how much they would be missed, should they not survive the coming year.
Finally, after dinner, the family gathered around the cake and the child would make a wish. Much like today, the wish cannot be told to anyone else, or it will not come true. The child then tried to blow out the candles in one breath, believing that the smoke would carry their wish to God.
Source: Carolyn Menyes/ The Daily Meal
Blowing the birthday cake candles in one breath
In the end, it’s all about you
Not unlike many of the traditions still practiced today, the birthday cake has already lost its cultural meaning and religious purpose. We no longer light candles for fear of evil spirits. We no longer offer cakes to the goddess of the moon. Nonetheless, the birthday cake still holds the real reason why they
are baked (or bought) in the first place: YOU. The person we love, cherish, and appreciate, whose life we celebrate with gratitude. You. The person we love a whole lot more than all the ancient gods combined.
“Go ahead,” I say to Aya, “have your cake, and eat it too.”