The origin of the birthday candle is surprisingly murky. Some sources credit the ancient Greeks, who purportedly lit cakes with candles as a sacrifice while visiting the Temple of Artemis. Others suggest the tradition of wish-making traces to pagan customs, back when practitioners believed that the smoke of an extinguished candle carried prayers to the spirit realm. Unfortunately, there’s no solid evidence that either practice is the origin of the modern birthday celebration.
Rather, the tradition of putting candles on a birthday cake has a history similar to that of the Christmas tree and Easter bunny: All are German imports.
Early Birthday Traditions
The earliest known account of a person blowing out birthday candles comes from Count Nikolaus Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf, who celebrated his birthday in 1746 with a candle-fueled extravaganza. According to guest Andreas Frey:
“There was a Cake as large as any Oven could be found to bake it, and Holes made in the Cake according to the Years of the Person’s Age, every one having a candle stuck into it, and one in the Middle; the Outside of the Court was adorned with Festoons and Foliage … there was not less than a thousand Candles burning at once.”
Count von Zinzendorf was a pious social reformer, but according to Frey, his birthday celebration was a raucous affair where “a Spirit of Drunkenness and Debauchery seemed to be broke loose among the Community,” with partygoers reveling in “filthy, gross Indecencies.” (Specifically, one partygoer farted in another man’s tea cup.)
Regardless of what happened at this party, Count von Zinzendorf and his band of gassy merrymakers probably weren’t the first Germans to light birthday candles. It’s likely that they were carrying on a practice that had been around for at least a century.
Symbolism and Superstition
According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, the practice of lighting birthday candles may have roots in a 15th-century German celebration called Kinderfest, a children’s festival filled with dancing, singing, and dessert-eating. Lighting candles atop a large cake was a way to celebrate the local youth — and a way to protect their mortal souls.
“On birthdays children were especially susceptible to evil spirits,” the editors at Oxford explain. “Friends and family gathered around protectively, keeping the cake’s candles lit all day until after the evening meal, when the cake was served. The candles were thought to carry one’s wishes up to God.”
At some point between the 15th and 18th centuries, the customs of Kinderfest migrated to children’s birthdays, with individual families treating the occasion as a private feast holiday. By the 1770s, German authors were regularly describing birthday cakes topped with candles in their writings. (By that point, “birthday cakes” had even spread to English-speaking countries, but candles hadn’t made an appearance yet.)
A review of 19th-century literature suggests that birthday candles wouldn’t make their way to America until sometime after the 1850s. And even as the custom became more popular stateside, it retained a distinctly German flair. Consider this passage, from 1887, from a book called Life Among the Germans.
“In the centre was the great feature — a Birthday Cake. And such a Birthday Cake! — an American children never even dreamed of such a Birthday Cake! It is an immense round, snowy cake, and about it, burning, thirteen little colored candles, — in the middle of it a large taper called the Lebens Licht — the light of life, the life-candle. Such a cake is generally present on birthdays, and each year another candle is added.”
Indeed, the central birthday candle — what Germans call the lebenslicht, or light of life—carried a pseudo-spiritual quality. The flame represented life itself: a warm presence that was simultaneously powerful but flickering, capable of being extinguished at any moment. The lebenslicht was as much a memento mori — a reminder of the fragility of life — as it was a symbol of celebration. In other words, it was a reminder to the birthday boy or girl to give all the light they could.
In the late 19th century, some Christian families saw birthday candles in explicitly religious terms. In the same way that Jesus was worshipped as “the light of the world,” believers felt that each child’s life provided new “light.” According to an 1890 religious journal called The Chuchman, birthday candles “mean we ought to make lights of our lives, shining a little brighter every year.”
A Modern Spin
While it’s common today to blow out the candles immediately, in the 19th century, traditions varied. One German account from 1858 suggests that the birthday boy or girl should let the flame die on its own. Another account from 1884 suggests that the candles should be lit in the morning and allowed to burn until supper.
Regardless of how they were used, birthday candles became increasingly popular in the United States starting around the 1880s, as more German immigrants flocked to the New World. Around this time, Americans began starting their own unique traditions, and it became common to sing hymns or recite original poems around the smoking cake. After each stanza, the birthday child would blow out one candle.
Here’s an example of two such verses from a poem from 1898, which appeared in the journal The Irrigation Age.
“Dimpled hands and dainty feet, sudden laughs and cries,
Sweet “goo-goos” and “Da-da-da’s” dark and wondering eyes,
Just a little baby girl whom loving arms must hold,
Put the little candle out, baby’s one year old.
Now she chatters, every day, learns more words and more:
Can’t you hear the little foot pattering on the floor?
Tiny games must now be played, tiny stories told:
Blow the little candle out, baby’s two years old.”
It wasn’t long before this practice would extend to adult celebrations as well. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the recitation of religious verse and homemade poems inspired a new tradition — one that, like birthday candles, would soon take over the globe: the singing of “The Happy Birthday Song.”