Birthday is one day of the year when a person irrespective of age can call it his/her day of the year. It is a day which every person wants to be celebrated & what is celebration of a birthday without cutting a cake!
But while blowing off the candles, have you ever thought about how this tradition of cakes on birthdays came about? Well, this tradition harks back to the time before recorded history begun. Yes it’s that old.
Of course this ceremony comes from western cultures. Historians & experts of the ancient age are of the opinion that this ritual began at the very birthplace of western civilization- Ancient Greece. They are of the opinion that the ancient Greeks made cakes or rather bread mixed with honey & nuts on birthdays. They called it ‘plakous,’ which is the origin of the word ‘flat.’ They also prepared ‘satura’- a flat heavy cake & round shaped cakes to offer their moon goddess Artemis. To make the cake glow like the moon, they put lighted candles on them. That’s how the practise of putting lighted candles on cakes came about in the modern birthday celebrations.
Later on, the Romans continued this custom & they called it ‘placenta’, which of course is derived from the Greek word ‘plakous.’ Modern researches show that the placenta was actually a type of cheese cake. Its ingredients had a pastry base. But the ancient Romans celebrated three types of birthdays- one in private with kin & kith & the other two were public- one was the birthdays of cities & temples & the other was birthdays of the past & present emperors as well as members of the imperial family. They usually celebrated the 50th birthday with a cake prepared with honey, wheat flour, grated cheese & olive oil.
Oh don’t have your mouth watered just yet with all the talk of this delicious desert. These are not the cakes that we usually have. Their primary ingredients were cereal grain meal, moistened with water or wine. They also had at least some form of yeast & the only sweet thing about it was the honey. These ancient people simply referred their cakes as bread as there was barely any difference. In medieval England, they called it pastry. There they would hide different objects in the batter like for example a coin. Whoever would get it in their piece was thought to become very wealthy in future. The word cake as we call it came from the Old Norse word “kaka.” In Germany as well cakes were being prepared since the medieval age. The true cake as we think of it today emerged only in the 16th century in France & Italy, which contained batter based on egg & sugar foam. Gradually this evolutionary art spread throughout Europe, which were then again modified further by the cooks around the continent.
However, it was only in the 18th century, with the age of mercantilism, that the tradition of cakes on birthdays & other occasions began to spread round the world. Ingredients & items like nuts, lemons, oranges, vanilla, chocolates & sugar became accessible & hence added to the cake. Then beaten eggs were being used as raising agents instead of yeasts. In the 19th century baking powder became available with the Industrial Revolution & mass production started with it.
In India, the British used to make cake only for themselves in what we presently call the state of West Bengal. Then a certain Mambally Bapu founded the Royal Biscuit factory in 1880 in Thalassery, Kerala. He started making cakes there from November, 1883. From then on it became a very popular desert among the Indians & it rapidly spread throughout India.
Well that is the story of how & why we all cut cakes on our birthdays & everyone sings “Happy Birthday” when we blow out the lighted candles. But of course, we don’t take the trouble of making it the way, which has evolved over such a long time. We simply buy it & that’s even easier nowadays with all the online cake ordering sites like Florist Xpress, where you can get a customized designer cake delivered to your doorstep with a few clicks of the mouse.
This tradition of cutting cakes on birthdays have become so common that we celebrate it like as if it has been in Indian culture for ever. However, as you know now that this tradition is actually much distant & ancient one.