Short Stories for Teachers
When the iced and decorated cake is brought to the table at a birthday party, it's ablaze with candles. A longstanding tradition, the lighting of birthday candles is said to have started with the ancient Greeks; it has taken on various meanings through the years, some religious and some just for fun. Today, blowing out the candles all at once to make a secret wish come true is one of the more popular birthday traditions.
To please Artemis, the goddess of the moon, the ancient Greeks created a special treat for birthdays. A moon-shaped honey cake was baked and decorated with lit candles so that the moon glowed.
The celebration was enhanced by the idea that the smoke from the flames of the candles would carry an offering up into the sky, where they believed Artemis lived.
The tradition of lighting candles for birthdays continued in Europe, where candles were sometimes kept burning all day on a person's birthday, partly as celebration and partly to ward off evil spirits.
In Germany, one big candle was placed in the middle of the cake. The birthday holiday was known as Kinderfest, a celebration of the holiday but also an occasion to keep careful watch over little ones who were supposedly more vulnerable to evil spirits on that day. The large candle frequently was marked from years one down to 12, and the candle was burned down only enough to mark that year's age.
Extinguishing the Flame
Traditionally, it was believed that the blowing out of candles indicated one's prayers to the gods. The practice of making a silent wish and then attempting to blow out all the candles so the wish might be granted originated from this idea. Some cultures believe it is bad luck to blow out the candles until after the evening meal is eaten.
Number of Candles
Traditionally, one candle is placed on a cake for each year of the individual's life. In some households, the tradition includes adding an extra candle for good luck, although that practice is discouraged when a very young child is celebrating, say, a third birthday and would not understand why the cake had four candles.
Generally, older people's birthdays are celebrated by placing just a few candles on a cake for decoration; sometimes a representative number is used, such as eight for the 80th birthday.
Modern Candle Variations
Today's birthday cakes might feature candles made in all sorts of decorative shapes, such as animals or flowers. One or two candles in the shape of numbers sometimes are used instead of multiple candles; for example, a 4-shaped and a 0-shaped candle would represent 40.
Recently, sparklers have become popular as an alternative to candles.