Let Them Eat Cake!
Most children’s birthday parties in America feature a few constants. Among them are candy, kids games, presents and a cake with candles on it. The candy makes the kids hyperactive, the games keep them entertained until they come down from their candy high, and the presents are sort of like an indirect “thank you” to mom and dad for babysitting everyone’s kids for three hours. So what’s the deal with the cake? When you think about it, wheeling out a birthday cake seems as arbitrary as, let’s say, birthday deviled eggs, or birthday stuffed potatoes. Yes, we all love cake, and nobody is trying to take it off the table so to speak (especially not to replace it with eggs or potatoes) but why is cake the customary treat of birthday celebrations, and when did the whole tradition begin?
Did you ever notice how much like a ritual the whole cake thing is? It’s got candles on it, one for each year of life to date. People stand around it, singing. The birthday girl or boy blows out the candles, attempting to extinguish them in one breath, and makes a wish to an unknown entity, for true love, world peace, a new doll, to get their braces off soon etc. Then finally, while cutting the cake, the birthday girl or boy is not to touch the plate with the knife, lest it bring bad fortune. Did you ever stop and wonder what all these rituals around the birthday cake are actually for?
Well actually, there are a few theories on the birthday cake tradition. There are also theories about why we adorn the cake with candles, and there’s even an explanation for singing “Happy Birthday To You” before the cake is cut. Here, we explain what it all means.
Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
Some say the tradition of the birthday cake dates back to Ancient Greece. The Greeks used to bake round cakes in the shape of the full moon to be given as offerings to Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon. The Greek offering of moon shaped cakes to Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, was often adorned with candles that made the cake “glow,” just like the moon, henceforth, cakes with candles became celebratory fare.
Others claim that the tradition began in Germany in the middle ages, with cakes in the shape of baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, being made in honor of his birthday. The tradition evolved into one that honored any child, at their birthday celebration or “Kinderfest.” The German cakes were often more like sweet bread than the sugary, buttery cakes we indulge in today. The Germans were also very gifted candle makers and began to put small candles on their cakes, as well as big candles in the centre that symbolized the “light of life.”
The tradition of singing before the cake is cut has its roots in a little more recent history. “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized and most frequently sung song in the world, the melody of which came from the song “Good Morning to All,” which was written and composed by American sisters Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. And as for the silly paper hats? Well, on that phenomenon, your guess is as good as ours.
It’s a Piece of Cake!
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, we’re pretty sure it still makes a sound. Something we’re not so sure about though… if a birthday party takes place but there is no cake; does a person really turn a year older? Let’s agree never to test the theory - every birthday boy, girl, adult and child deserves a birthday cake on their special day. With such diversity in flavors and styles of birthday cakes available today, the days of moon cake and bland sweet bread are well and truly over.
The variety of birthday cakes available is endless, but a few perennial favorites sure to please everyone at the party are, chocolate, red velvet and vanilla bean. The Three Layer Chocolate Happy Birthday Cake is a decadence that should be indulged in, at least once a year, completely free of guilt. The chocolate cake is a persistent favorite at children’s and adult’s birthday parties and is one flavor that will never be deemed outdated.
The Red Velvet Cake, on the other hand, comes in and out of popularity and is enjoying a renaissance as one of the season’s favorite birthday cakes. The last time it enjoyed such popularity was in the early 90s, thanks in large part, to a film that featured a cake shaped as a little armored mammal. Anyone who saw the 1989 film Steel Magnolias probably recalls the notorious armadillo shaped groom’s cake with the red velvet center. Even though the red velvet cake was designed to suggest the armadillo’s innards, the film reignited many people’s passion for the delicious cake flavor. Traditionally the result of a reaction of the cocoa powder and buttermilk, the red color in red velvet cake is now more often created with the use of red food dye.
Finally, the Vanilla Bean Happy Birthday Cake is a safe bet for any occasion. The little pod that delivers a big flavor is labor intensive to produce, making Vanilla an expensive spice, second only to saffron in most US grocery stores. Despite the expense, we love the flavor and use it to add a delicate flavor to desserts and a spicy bouquet to perfume. One of the few scents we like to wear as well as eat, vanilla is our favorite “go-to” birthday cake flavor.
So now you have a few trusty favorites to choose from when you are entertaining birthday party revelers. And you are also able to impart your newfound wisdom on why we eat cake, and why we blow out candles at birthday celebrations. Together with some tidbits about the Happy Birthday song and your best guess on the origins of the silly paper hats, you’ll be the most knowledgeable person at the birthday party!