Birthday Traditions

My birthday was last week.  I’m floating in Starbuck’s gift cards (hooray!) and the UPS guy will be delivering Amazon boxes for many weeks to come.  My family knows me–Starbuck’s and Amazon are my two favorite things and I like gift cards. Add in Half Price Books and I’m all set for a while. .

My family is pretty low key with birthdays. There’s an unofficial seven-day grace period for late cards, and we get together for cake on whatever day we can all manage.  This year I found myself wondering about some of these traditions.

The Happy Birthday Song–The tune was written in 1893 by two sisters–Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill. It was originally published in a book called Song Stories for the Kindergarten and was called “The Good Morning Song.” The original lyrics were “Good Morning to All . . .” These lyrics morphed into “Good Morning To You” and then to the birthday tune we all know.

Birthday Cakes–Birthday cakes go back to ancient Greece, but no butter cream roses! The Greeks celebrated with honey cakes or bread baked. So did the ancient Romans. The custom continued into the middle ages, particularly in Germany and England. In England, cakes were baked with small objects inside–things like coins and thimbles. The coin was considered lucky and a sign of future wealth. The thimble? Not so good . . . whoever found the thimble was destined to never marry. (I have to wonder how many people choked on coins and thimbles…)

Birthday candles–The Greeks decorated moon-shaped cakes with candles. It was believed the smoke carried messages to the god named Artemis. In Germany in the middle ages, the candle custom shifted a bit. Instead of many candles, one big candle stood in the center of the cake. It was marked with the years 1-12 to signify a child growing up, and the candle was saved and used every year.

That’s a lot nicer than the standard gag in our household . . . You know those candles that reignite after you blow them out?  You might get a whole cake covered with them, or there might be one or two mixed in with the regular candles. On top of the “eternal flame” motif, someone is usually ready to make a joke about the number of candles and the need for a fire extinguisher.

Birthday cards–If your family is like mine, it’s spread all over the country.  Cards and phone calls are as much a part of a birthday celebration as cake and candles. Greeting cards have a long history, but cards similar to the ones we know today were first produced in the 1870s by a German immigrant named Louis Prang. The industry started with Christmas cards, endured a slump in the 1880s and 1890s, and came back at the turn of the century.  Color was introduced to the printing process in the 1930s, and the “humor” angle became popular in the 1950s.

Who’s up for cyber cake and ice cream? What family traditions do you have?  What’s your best birthday ever?  Or the funniest? 

Vicki’s western romances are available at Amazon.

Victoria Bylin
Victoria Bylin is under contract with Bethany House Publishers for two inspirational contemporary romances.Prior to jumping to the present day, she wrote westerns for Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical. Her books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. She and her husband live in Lexington, Kentucky and have two grown sons. You can learn more about Vicki at www.victoriabylin.com

16 Comments

  1. A tradition we started ages ago was to get balloons for birthdays that were a bit “off”. For example, my son would get a “Hello Kitty” balloon or my daughter “over the hill”. Usually a mix but never regular birthday balloons.

    I think it started when I went to the dollar store where we normally get our balloons and they were out of every single type of birthday balloon. The kids went with it and it has become a tradition.

    Happy Birthday to you and may the year ahead be full of blessings.

    Peace, Julie

  2. My birthday hasn’t been a big deal since I grew up–and I like it that way. My son’s family lives close and I celebrate each of their birthdays by taking the family out to dinner. Since my middle grandson and I have birthdays two days apart, I count his celebration as mine. Just what I want.
    Thanks for a fun blog, Vicki.

  3. Fun blog, Vicki, and Happy Belated Birthday!!

    What I remember most about birthdays when I was young was my dad decorating our cakes. Mom would “sketch” a rough draft with toothpicks and then Dad would go to town. I had everything from Raggedy Anne and Andy to Pepe Le Pew and Penelope. Sometimes we got an eye roll when we told him what we’d like, but he always came through. Oh, and I can’t forget Mom, she baked all the cakes! :o)

    –Kirsten

  4. HAPPY BIRTHDAY VICKI!!!!!!!!!
    The thimble thing seems unnecessarily cruel!
    My family was always always always angel food cake. Mom often frosted it with a lemon glaze icing–which was yummy but I preferred my angel food cake NAKED. She seemed to feel guilty about that, probably because it was too easy, but I convinced her I meant it. I still love unfrosted angel food.

  5. Happy Belated Birthday! My Mom always asked what kind of cake we wanted. We would have a nice dinner of whatever the Birthday kid wanted. But, after I married, the fun began. My Mother-in-law had other traditions. We had dinner, and the cake was your choice, but it was always a layer cake! We did the old fashioned thing of putting items in the cake–however, we wrapped them in wax paper and put them between the layers. Our thimble was a button, a penny and sometimes a ring. With the wax paper it was less likely to be choked on. And anyway, everyone knew there were items and they were watched for. Then, who could find the craziest card and sometimes the largest.
    We even baked my son’s 16th Birthday cake in the back country. He wanted chocolate, so we took it with us on the trip.(Betty Crocker box). We had an outside fire and the elevaation of 9,500ft. We didn’t have cake pans, so we got everyone to donate their “Sierra Club” stainless cup and we baked his cake in 30 cups. We did have candles, too. He was surprised because he was sent out on a day ride that took all day. The guests thought that was a great way to celebrate.

  6. Belated B-day Wishes!
    Family traditions… the birthday person chooses their fav cake and restaurant to eat at… nothing fancy.
    Fav birthday memory… when I was turning 11, my family went on a Disney cruise. It was my first cruising experience and it was great. The last day of the cruise they gave me a little cake to take with me. We then went Disney World… fun time and fun memories!

  7. Can’t remember birthday parties with guests
    during our childhood. With 11 members in the
    family we were our own party! Mother always
    did a special dinner with a special cake!
    My own immediate family has 19 members, so
    there is always a celebration in progress.
    August has the most (11) immediate and ex-
    tended family birthdays! My favorite b’day
    celebration was a surprise party for my 70th
    with 75 of my nearest and dearest attending.
    Can’t forget my sibs, the six of us still in
    existence (LOL!) have lunch on our b’days!

  8. My birthday being 4-4-44, I often had Easter type games and cakes at my birthday parties. My in-laws always had home-made chocolate angelfood. When our children were younger we would start celebrating them at breakfast with sugaar frosted flakes, ice cream and strawberries. Yumm…whose birthday can I celebrate today?

  9. Hi Julie! Fun idea on the balloons! We did something similiar when my oldest turned twenty-five. He thought he was “over the hill,” so we used black paper plates, etc.. Much joking!

  10. Hi Elizabeth! “Low key” works for me too, though that might change when grandkids come along. Right now it’s enjoyable to do a family dinner. When it comes down to it, that’s what I like the best–time together!

    Hi Kirsten! Those cakes sound delightful. I bet they tasted good too. Kudos for your mom and dad for making birthday memories.

  11. Hi Mary, Angel food is a favorite here too. I knew my husband liked it when he brought home an angel food cake pan from Gemco, or some such store. We’d been married about a week. Hint! Hint!

    Hello Mary J, Your family sure knows how to celebrate! What a great 16th birthday for your son. Baking at high altitude is tricky, so using the little cups was probably good for all sorts of reasons.

  12. Hello Colleen, that Disney birthday had to be fabulous!!!! What a terrific memory!

    Hi Pat! Wow, what a BIG family you have! That is so precious–such a gift especially now when people live so far apart.

  13. Hi Connie! What a cool date for a birthday! I bet your kids loved those all-day celebrations . . . I’m headed to get birthday goodies for my father-in-law and am thinking about chocolate cupcakes with tons of frosting. Yum!

  14. In my husband’s family we are eternally 16… never more than 16 candles on the cake. Angel food cake was my mother-in-laws choice for her birthday, too. We usually frosted it with a simple glaze. Our kids got to choose their cakes from the “Baker’s Cut-up Cake Party Book” and they had everything from a butterfly to a tiger. Good memories for all.

  15. Hi Hilltop Farm Wife! “Eternally 16” sounds good to me. Special cakes are always fun . . . My mom made Sesame Street cakes for my oldest son–both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. She used coconut to make them fuzzy. Tons of fun!

  16. I have never understood people who MUST celebrate their birthday (or anniversary) on the exact day. It would be nice to do, but as a military family, we learned to celebrate birthdays and holidays when we could be together. With families and friends so spread apart, it is hard to make sure greetings and gifts make it in time. Your one week grace period is perfect. Your family has learned a valuable thing – with adults, gift cards are often the best option. We rarely know the perfect gift for someone, and I would much rather they get something they will be really happy with. I may not be able to buy them the Kindle Fire they want, bit I can give them a gift card to put on their account to save for one.

    Thanks for all the information on the evolution of birthday traditions.

    When the children were younger I always tried to have a theme for their birthday party, whether it was a big party with their friends, or just family. I enjoyed decorating the cakes. When they got old enough, I had a small doll pan that made 4 “skirts.”
    I had the body tops and would let the girls decorate their own cakes to take home and share. With our son, I used those same pans for teepees or rocket ships for them to decorate. Great party activity when you have only 4 or 5 guests. It keeps the occupied for at least a half hour and they love it. Just have lots of frosting and supervise. The boys, especially, seem to think the more the better.

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