11 Facts About The History Of Popular Birthday Traditions That Take The Cake

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Vote up the facts about birthday traditions that really take the cake.

At a certain point in life, the joy of a birthday may lose a little something, but even when that happens, you may not be able to escape some traditions. Cake, presents, singing, and parties are all part of birthdays around the world, albeit in different forms and fashions.

A lot of how birthdays unfold around us can be traced back decades, centuries, and millennia. From candle-blowing to donkey-pinning, the history of popular birthday traditions is a complex mix of cultural influences, religious beliefs, and social mores. To find out more about birthdays throughout time and how they have shaped our celebrations today, unwrap the fun facts we found and vote up the ones that offer a nice slice of history.


  • 1
    49 VOTES

    Egyptian Pharaohs Celebrated Birthdays With Feasts 

    From kids' birthday parties to family dinners, food and birthday festivities are part of modern birthday celebrations. The same is true according to the Bible, where the first reference to a birthday is found. Genesis 40:20 states:

    And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants.

    Because pharaohs were divine, it's possible that the "birthday" in question is comparable to what one might also consider the festival day for a specific deity. Five epagomenal days, as they are called, were added to the Egyptian calendar by Imhotep to mark the birthdays of the gods.

    49 votes
  • Greeks Were The First To Blow Out 'Birthday' Candles
    Photo: FOTO:FORTEPAN / Pohl Pálma / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
    60 VOTES

    Greeks Were The First To Blow Out 'Birthday' Candles

    Greeks offered cakes to Artemis as a birthday ritual, and Romans presented celebratory cakes to non-deities, but only the Greeks incorporated candles into the event. Greek cakes called ammilos were accompanied by candles that symbolized the stars and moon and honored Artemis, the goddess of hunting. The cakes were placed in a temple to Artemis, then the Greeks made a wish and extinguished the candles, "believing that the smoke carries the prayers to the heavens."

    When medieval and early modern Germans started celebrating children's birthdays (kinderfest), they presented a youngster with a cake in the morning, with candles that stayed lit through the day and were blown out with a wish.

    Also during the Middle Ages, English cake-makers placed small tokens in cakes, a tradition comparable to "king cakes" during Mardi Gras.

    60 votes
  • 3
    51 VOTES

    Birthdays Were Seen As Pagan Rituals Until Celebrating Jesus's Birth Became Widespread

    Because early birthday traditions were based on pagan beliefs, it was difficult for early Christians to accept celebrating them. A biblical reference to a birthday in Genesis (40: 21-22) was directly tied to pagan Egyptians - and it was associated with death. As part of a pharaoh's birthday celebration:

    He lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. He restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh's hand: But he hanged the chief baker.

    In the New Testament, King Herod's birthday is mentioned, but the celebration involves the demise of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29). 

    It wasn't until the fourth century that Christians recognized birthday celebrations, around the same time the birth of Jesus grew in popularity. Even celebrations of Christ's birth didn't lose their pagan roots, however, because they coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia

    51 votes
  • After Years Of Controversy, The Happy Birthday Song Became Public Domain In 2016
    Video: YouTube
    69 VOTES

    After Years Of Controversy, The Happy Birthday Song Became Public Domain In 2016

    The history around the song sung just before a person celebrating a birthday blows out their candles is actually pretty contentious. The original title of the song "Happy Birthday to You" was "Good Morning to All," a tune attributed to Patty and Mildred Hill:

    Good morning to you
    Good morning to you
    Good morning dear teacher,
    Good morning to all

    The sisters from Kentucky published "Good Morning to All" in 1893 but didn't copyright numerous alternative versions in subsequent decades. When "Happy Birthday to You" appeared in books and in the Broadway production of As Thousands Cheer, the Mill family went to court and received rights to the song. 

    The Mill family benefited from royalties to the song, but in 1988, it was sold to Warner Communications (later Warner Music Group). The company licensed the song extensively, earning millions of dollars in the process, until 2013, when a copyright lawsuit was filed by Good Morning to You Productions, a company making a documentary about the song. Good Morning to You Productions president Jennifer Nelson, via her lawyers, explained, 

    It is shocking that someone claims to own it and others therefore have to pay a fee to use it.... I hope to return it to the public where it rightfully belongs.

    In 2015, "Happy Birthday to You" was placed in the public domain. Warner Music appealed, and in 2016, a judge ruled Warner Music had an invalid claim to the song. The company was ordered to pay out $14 million to "thousands of people and entities" charged for using the song. 

    While restaurants had long ago developed their own tunes wishing customers "Happy Birthday" and a lot of movies and television shows simply avoided the song entirely, it became possible to hear "Happy Birthday to You" much more often as a result of the decision.

    69 votes
  • 5
    43 VOTES

    Birthdays Weren't Recognized Until Calendars Were Developed

    Keeping track of time can be traced to the Neolithic Age, but the first calendars are attributed to the Sumerians - in large part thanks to the development of writing. Egyptians, Assyrians, and other ancient civilizations also had calendars that were generally tied to celestial movements.

    Comparable calendars developed in ancient Greece, China, India, and the Americas with festivals, agricultural cycles, regencies, and other events tracked, too. It's with the formal keeping of time as a social construct that specific days and times became significant.

    During the late Republic, Romans used the Julian calendar through the Imperial period, and during the Middle Ages, calendars were religious, agricultural, and regnal (related to a monarch) in structure. The Gregorian calendar was a reform of the Julian calendar and, after its introduction during the 16th century, became dominant in the Western world. 

    In contemporary society, some cultures recognize two birthdays because they acknowledge two calendars. Chinese people, for example, may note their birthday on the Lunar calendar as well as on the Western calendar. Two birthdays per year are recognized by many Asian Indians, one according to the Western calendar and one based on a local Indian calendar.

    The importance of keeping track of days, weeks, and months has experienced changes and emphases over time, but without such practices, a birthday might never have been marked as an occasion. Even with calendars, most people were unaware of when their birthday was at all

    43 votes
  • Spanking And Other Birthday 'Punishments' Are Mysterious - And Controversial 
    Photo: ElisabetSC / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
    36 VOTES

    Spanking And Other Birthday 'Punishments' Are Mysterious - And Controversial 

    Although birthday spankings have fallen out of practice in many places, the act of bumping the butt of a youngster on their birthday was never intended to be a punishment. It was actually supposed to be celebratory and for luck, especially that last "one to grow on."

    The origins of the tradition aren't clear, and punches, pinches, ear pulling, and other physical traditions remain equally shrouded in mystery. What is clear, however, is that these types of birthday "traditions" are not without their critics. When some parents learned that Principal Bridget Williams in Texas was giving birthday spankings to willing students, they condemned her actions as "inappropriate."  The spankings were soon stopped but, school district officials did maintain:

    The spankings are of course not actual spankings, they are a traditional celebration of a child's birthday. 

    Among the most unique birthday practices is greasing the nose, common in parts of North America, where friends and family sneak up on the birthday kid and literally spread butter on their nose.

    According to one former birthday-buttered celebrant, "When I was young your nose always got buttered and a spank for each year and one to grow on. If no one did it, then we always thought that your birthday had been forgotten."

    36 votes