A Brief History of Birthdays

No-one can be quite certain when we first began to celebrate birthdays, and the means of doing this varies greatly from culture to culture, with some religions even frowning upon the very idea of such a thing! But where did it likely all begin?

The bible’s Book of Genesis holds one of the earliest references to a birthday, when a Pharaoh ‘lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials’. Whether this means he promoted them to a higher position or decapitated them I’m not certain! This birthday however, was to commemorate the date they were ‘reborn as gods’ during their official coronation.

The idea of putting candles on cakes possibly came from those clever Greeks, who offered moon shaped cakes to Artemis, who was goddess of the moon amongst other things. Candles were added to the cakes in order to give them a ‘glowing moon’ effect. And these celebratory cakes were perhaps also used to celebrate other special days.

It was the Romans however who first began to celebrate birthdays for people rather than gods. They went as far as inventing the public holiday to celebrate birthdays of the rich and famous. The Roman calendar originally began in March, this was gradually changed to other months of the year, and then they decided to add another two months in January and February. It must have been a heck of a job remembering when people’s birthdays were in those days.

With the birth of Christianity, birthdays became frowned upon as a pagan ritual which was not in keeping with the spirit of things. It took a few hundred years for things to change, and this began with the celebrating of the birth of Jesus on the 4th century, and so the festival of Christmas was born.

During the 18th century, the modern birthday cake with candles was created as a way for Germans to celebrate ‘Kinderfest’, where a child would be presented with one candle for each year of their age, plus an extra one to help bring about the ‘return’ of their birthday the following year (many happy returns!)

Nowadays birthdays are celebrated around the world, with different cultures honouring the day in many different ways. But probably the most common modern way to mark the day is of course with the giving of birthday presents.

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