With my own son just having celebrated his 18th birthday with a themed party, I reflected on the previous 17, and then further back to my own childhood birthday celebrations, noting the evolution in just two generations, and sparking a bit of curiosity as to the history of birthday celebrations on a global scale.
Two Generations of Birthdays
I clearly remember a couple of my own childhood birthday celebrations. One being the home party, where friends spent the day in the pool or sliding down a homemade slippery slide created with a canvas sale fastened to a grassy slope and sprayed with water and dishwashing liquid. The other, the typical pre-teen burger party at a popular neighbourhood steakhouse. Birthday cakes were often a chocoloate ‘box’ cake with the relevant number of candles on them, and games involved Pass the Parcel and Musical Chairs. Invitations were hand written on a pad bought from the store, or sometimes even just a note between moms, passed on from one school blazer pocket to the next.
By the time I became a mom, birthday parties had evolved a bit, and my son saw his first birthday in at home dressed as Tigger with a Winnie-the-Pooh cake and décor. His second, and subsequent birthdays, were typically held at a party venue, each with a new theme, depending on the flavour of the year… we’ve had farmyard parties, train parties, horse parties, pirate parties, Spiderman parties… and dads, don’t judge… even a Mamma Mia party! Invitations are now electronic, cakes are intricately beautiful, and party entertainment and games are taken care of by the venue.
Where Did the Birthday Party Begin?
Research is a little inconclusive on the exact origin of birthday celebrations, but evidence seems to agree on some general theories by historians, and the results aren’t isolated to one specific region, time or person celebrating the first birthday party.
In ancient times, the marking of time was measured by the moon and the sun, and when people began to note the cycles of the moon, paying attention to the change of seasons and repeated patterns, the first calendars were formed to mark the passage of time. With this, the ability to track significant annual events and anniversaries became possible.
Some historians believe that ancient superstition led people to believe that evil spirits were more harmful when a person experienced change of life, such as becoming a year older. Family members would gather around the birthday person and shower them with well wishes and gifts to protect them from the evil spirits. Lighting candles were thought to have been a way to send prayers up to the gods believed to be living in the sky, while noisemakers were to ward off the spirits.
It is believed that the earliest celebration of birthdays began with the tradition of crowning pharaohs in their transformation into gods. Their divine coronation date was deemed more important than their physical birth. The earliest mention in the Bible refers to Pharaoh’s birthday celebration in around 3,000 BC, though Egyptologists believe this to be referring to his coronation, or birth as a god, not his physical birth.
In paying tribute to the lunar goddess, Artemis, the Greeks made moon-shaped cakes, decorated with lit candles as a symbol of the moon’s radiance.
While the Egyptians and Greeks honoured their gods with a celebration, it was the ancient Romans who were first to start celebrating the birthday of the common man, with the operative word being ‘man’ – it was only in the 12th century that females also had the anniversaries of their birth recognised! Friends and family would enjoy a birthday party for each other, though public holidays observed the birthdays of the famous. A 50th birthday merited a cake made with wheat flour, honey, olive oil and cheese.
Because the original birthdays were celebrated to honour pagan gods, the Christian Church deemed birthday celebrations as evil. It was only in the 4th century that Christians celebrated Christmas as the birth of Jesus.
The 18th century saw the birth of Kinderfeste in Germany, the most similar celebration to our modern birthday party, with the invention of contemporary birthday cakes. Kinderfeste celebrated children’s birthdays with a cake and candles. One candle for each year of their life, and an extra candle for the hope of another year of life.
The Industrial Revolution
Before the industrial revolution, the necessary ingredients for sugary cakes where considered a luxury and only available to the wealthy. With the onset of the revolution, ingredients became more readily available, and advances in production allowed for pre-made cakes to be bulk produced for the masses.
Happy Birthday to You
Did you know that the original birthday song was actually a song called “Good Morning to All, written in 1893 by Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill? It was a morning ritual in classrooms for children to sing the song before lesson started. The catchy song spread across America, being adapted as it went, and eventually in 1924, a new rendition published by Robert Coleman with his lyrics overshadowing the original made its debut as the now universal song honouring the birthday person.