It seems a strange tradition, to bake a cake and light it on fire to celebrate one’s day of birth. But there it is — it’s a widespread occurrence, and one can’t help but wonder how far back it goes or how it came about.
Maybe it originated in a busy farm culture, where the work of the day was not done until nightfall, and so that everyone could see the cake, and the cake-cutter could portion out even pieces, they put the candles right in the cake. Or maybe they only had very small tables, and so placed the candles on the cake to save space.
But maybe it goes back even farther. Maybe it goes back to a time when it was still common to sacrifice by flame. Perhaps, on the anniversary of a person’s birth, they would feel the need to sacrifice, say, a loaf of bread to their god(s) by burning it in their honour, as thanks for the previous year and hopes for yet another.
And then, during an era of hard times, the idea of just burning and wasting good food, they decided to symbolically sacrifice the bread, by lighting candles above the loaf, with one candle representing eacgh year’s sacrificial pyre. Maybe they used to light the candles and burn the candles anyway. One candle for each previous year, and then the big ball of bread flame for the current year.
But it seems they’d likely just burn the candles, instead of the bread as soon as the people became a little less fearful of their gods or else couldn’t afford to throw away food. And once you’re actually eating the thing, you might as well make it good. So why not make it a cake? With sugar and icing and syrups?
These progressions might be considered ‘ratchet steps’ — once adopted, they do not (or are unlikely to) revert.
So to review:
1) In thanks for a year of life, and in hopes of another, ancient people burned a loaf of bread to their gods. Depending on the affluence of the community, the bread would have been made from undesireable or luxurious ingredients.
2) Eventually hard times befall a local population, and they adopt the tradition of burning candles on top of the bread instead of burning the bread itself. The practicality of such a tradition will be evident to surrounding populations, and they will be inclined to adopt it. When years of plenty return, people are unlikely to unnecessarily start burning their perfectly good bread (after all, the gods seemed completely satisfied with the symbolic sacrifice as it was already being performed)
3) Now that they’re actually eating the bread and they have some materials to spare for luxury desserts and the occassional feast, people are inclined to pour more effort and expense into the symbolic sacrifice. Now it will look pretty and taste good, too. At this point it is serving as a status symbol to other community members, so demonstrate how much wealth one has to spare on their birthday cake. Or perhaps the luxury of the cake was set by the community who presented it to its celebrating member, to demonstrate their appreciation for them.
At this point, all bets are off. Maybe the community was supposed to provide the cake to advertise their level of appreciation for the member, but maybe unpopular members would make their own amazing cakes to create the appearance of popularity. How big were these communities? Were they fooling anyone? “That Melvin, always makes such a fancy cake. But everyone knows he always pretends to be sick when there are irrigation repairs! What a douche!”
Maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe for the week before a person’s birthday they had to go out into the cold and fast. And when they came back, they had to choose between food and fire. And one day, someone’d had enough, and while looking at the chief or shaman or priest, presenting a torch on one side, and victuals on the other, that cut-through-the-bullshit no-nonsense kiss-my-ass individual, who was cold and hungry and in no mood to play stupid games, just snatched the torch, slammed it into a wheel of cheese, and gathered everything up and walked off while stuffing their mouth. “Anyone who doesn’t have a problem with this can come and join me. I’ve got the fire and the cheese. Fuck you, Brendlevaur.”
Ya, maybe it was something like that. We can’t be sure. I was careful not to look any of this up before speculating at length. Maybe it’s better that way…