Birthdays Were Not Always Celebrations

November 19, 2010 at 1:00 am 9 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

Although traditions can vary widely, annual birthday celebrations are pretty common around the world.

In the beginning, only Kings and other royalty were thought to be important enough to have birthday celebrations. At the time, birthdays were not celebrations for common people. They believed that evil spirits searched for people on their birthday, so friends and family would gather to protect the birthday person from the evil spirits. Singing songs and using noise makers was thought to scare the spirits away and gifts were given for good luck.

Of course, modern birthdays are much different. One of the highlights is the cake and the tradition of serving birthday cake comes from Ancient Rome. Originally, cakes were much like bread, the only difference being that cakes were sweeter.

With culinary advancements in the 17th century, cakes began to look more like their contemporary counterparts. At the time, they were a privilege of the wealthy and not until the industrial revolution were the materials and tools affordable and widely available enough for commoners to have birthday cakes too.

Although candles originated in China around 200 BC, it was the Europeans who popularized decorative candles. Candles made their way onto birthday cakes around the 18th century in Germany. Many cultures put enough candles on the cake to equal the age of the person, some cultures adding one more for good luck.

Some cultures also celebrate the birthday of a historical leader or religious figure. One of the most popular is Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus. In the United States we also celebrate Presidents Day on the third Monday of February, which honors George Washington’s birthday (February 22, 1732). Although most people celebrate the day they were born, there are some cultures in Europe and Latin America that also celebrate one’s name day. In that case, if you were named after a Saint, you would celebrate on that Saint’s name day (sometimes in addition to your birthday, other times in place of it — depending on the country).

There are many other birthday traditions from around the globe, some are current and others have long passed. In some South American cultures, it was tradition to pull on the earlobes of birthday children, once for each year they have lived. In India, icing from the cake is sometimes rubbed on the face of the birthday person.

In Mexico, a Piñata is a colorful container, often shaped like a star or an animal, that is filled with treats. The birthday person, usually a child, is given a stick to break the piñata or in some countries there are strings to pull open a trap door. Although this is well known, there are many other countries, such as Denmark, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and others who have similar traditions involving clay pots or other containers that are broken to release treasures.

PS – Today, we are celebrating a very special birthday. Exactly one year and 235 secrets ago, I posted the first secret on — You Can Use Foil in the Microwave.

Broken Secrets

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Photos: Omer Wzir (cc), Joe Gray (cc)

Sources:, Wikipedia (Birthday, Birthday Cake, Candles, Pinata)

Entry filed under: Blog News, Demystified, Food and Drink, History and Origins, Holidays and Traditions. Tags: , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barb Nisbet  |  November 19, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Hi Chad,
    Well then, a VERY Happy Birthday to Broken Secrets.
    A balmy minus 24C in Saskatoon as I type; hope you and Kristen are doing well and the weather in Wisconsin is much more civilized.Have a good weekend.

    • 2. Chad Upton  |  November 19, 2010 at 9:03 am

      Barb, thanks for being a part of Broken Secrets. I hope you guys are doing well and keeping warm!

  • 3. Lisa Elliott  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Happy Birthday Broken Secrets! (Of course, my mom beat me to it.)

  • 5. Elbyron  |  November 19, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Today is my Birthday too! Happy Birthday to both of us!

    • 6. Chad Upton  |  November 20, 2010 at 8:57 am

      Thanks Elbyron, very fitting since you’re such a loyal reader.

  • 7. Tarana  |  November 21, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Just wanted to point out something…it is not ‘tradition’ in India to rub icing on a person’s face on their birthday. Celebrating birthdays itself is a relatively new phenomenan that came with the Western influence. Though people do rub icing on birthdays at some parties, it is in no way a tradition…

  • 8. Laura  |  November 21, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Happy birthday, Broken Secrets! Always interesting and entertaining :) Thanks for writing it!

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