When you really think about it, birthdays are kind of strange, aren’t they?

Once a year, everybody gathers together, a cake is baked, candles are lit, then blown out, we sing a song, and then we wait another 365 days to do it all over again.

Have you ever wondered why we do this?

Well, birthdays weren’t always like this. Over time birthday traditions have slowly changed and evolved into what we know them to be today.

And that’s what we are going to explore throughout this article.

I’ve pieced together why birthdays came about, why birthdays are celebrated in the fashion that they are, why we bake cakes and light candles, and I’ll even detail the heated legal battle over the Happy Birthday song.

Let’s jump into it.


Click to view the Full Infographic, via Paperscale

Where Did The Tradition Of Birthdays Come From?

If you think about it, we only know it’s somebody’s birthday because a calendar, or now more commonly our phones, tell us there’s cause to celebrate.

Before calendars were a thing, though, ancient people didn’t really know when it was the anniversary of a family member or close friend’s birth.

It wasn’t until humans began looking up at the heavens that we realized certain celestial events repeated themselves. Observing the moon’s cycle and the shifting of constellation bodies through the night’s sky allowed us to more concisely measure time.

And, as you probably have already guessed, led to the birth of the first calendars. Which, of course, gifted the human race with the ability to celebrate birthdays and other noteworthy events throughout the year.

Birthdays, The Egyptian Way

Around 3,000 B.C.E. Egyptian Pharaohs’ “birthdays” were celebrated, although, not in the way we do it today. Nope, the Egyptians didn’t celebrate their Pharaoh’s birth into the world, they celebrated their Pharaoh’s “birth” as a god.

You see, in ancient Egypt, when a new Pharaoh was crowned, it was thought that they were transformed into gods or goddesses. Their coronation was looked upon as a rebirth and was seen to be of far more importance to the Egyptians than the day their newly crowned Pharaoh took their first breath.

The Origins Behind Receiving Birthday Cakes

The Greeks celebrated birthdays in a somewhat similar way to the Egyptians with a few small differences.

The ancient people of Greece believed in offerings, you know tributes and even animal sacrifices, to appease their gods and goddesses. And like the Egyptians, they used birthdays as a way to celebrate their gods or goddesses. In this case the lunar goddess, Artemis.

The Greeks would offer her moon-shaped cakes embellished with lit candles on the sixth day of every lunar month. The candles were seen to symbolize Artemis’ glowing radiance and beauty. The Grecians blew out the cake’s candles and made a wish that was believed to be sent directly to their gods.

So, you know that extra bit of weight you put on from indulging in too much birthday cake? You can now directly blames that on the ancient Grecian people.

The Romans Adopt Birthday Celebrations

Ah, the Romans. They certainly knew how to party and indulge their egos. They are thought to be the first people to say “I’m just as important as a god. To prove this I’m going to celebrate the day I was born!”.

And that’s exactly what they did, with the exclusion of women of course…

…as were the times I guess.

So onward they went, Roman men were the first non-godly folk to celebrate their birthdays.

Romans celebrated birthdays for their friends and families, while the Roman government set public holidays aside for the birthdays of the more famous citizens. Just like we do today.

And those Roman men that reached the ripe old age of 50 received a special kind of cake. This cake was made up of wheat flour, grated cheese, honey, and, of course, olive oil.

How very Roman of them.

Oh, and don’t worry, women eventually were able to celebrate birthdays. It only took till the 12th century…

…around 800 years later.

Early Christians Weren’t A Fan Of Your Birthday

No, that’s right. Christians weren’t a fan of the old bake a cake and blow out some candles.

They saw birthdays as a sin, a ritual tied to “pagan” gods. In fact, the Christian Church considered the celebration of birthdays to be so evil that they banned practicing it for the first few hundred years of its existence.

In fact, it took until the 4th century before the church felt like joining the birthday celebrations.

They started to celebrate the birth of Jesus, which of course is now the holiday of Christmas.

The Birthday Cake Bakers Of Germany

At this point, the idea of celebrating your birthday had really become quite popular. The tradition had reached many cultures throughout the world, including Germany.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, German bakers are believed to have started baking birthday cakes just like we know them today. The cakes were made to celebrate Kinderfeste, the earliest and closest event to a modern-day birthday party.

This celebration was predominantly thrown for German children, or “kinder” (hence Kindergarten, meaning children’s garden). Kinderfeste involved both a birthday cake and candles, just like we do today, but with a slight difference. One extra candle was added to symbolize the hope that the child would live for another year.

Child deaths were high at the time and many passed before reaching adulthood.

And, of course, the blowing out of candles and making a wish was all part of the fun.

I can see it clearly, all the little german kids gathered around, blowing out the candles, making a wish, hoping that they’ll live another year, and then eating a slice of their Geburtstagskuchen (that’s German for birthday cake).

How morbidly cute.

With The Industrial Revolution Came Mass Birthday Cakes

And lastly, we land on the industrial revolution and the start of modern-day times. The industrial revolution made birthday celebrations available to everyone. And in the truest of capitalist fashion, not only were birthday cakes produced on mass they were also made less expensive.

Bakeries started offering pre-made rather than made to order cakes, which reduced costs considerably. This allowed common folk, formally only available to the very wealthy, to start celebrating birthdays.


Instead of a cake, Red Robin offers a free birthday burger if you’re part of their Royalty Rewards Program

Birthday Presents

As we’ve seen, ancient cultures either didn’t have the capacity to track time, their culture didn’t allow it, they weren’t wealthy enough, or they simply didn’t care to celebrate birthdays.

Times were tougher back then and people were more inclined to celebrate other more important milestones such as the moment of birth itself, a marriage, or a person reaching adult age.

Hip hip hooray!

But as times past, more and more people began to celebrate birthdays. Birthdays became set in tradition and many celebratory customs evolved.

Customs like gift-giving.

When Did Gift Giving Start?

Back to the indulgence of the Romans for a moment. Not only did the Romans bless their male folk with the pleasure of celebrating their birthday but they also were responsible for the first gifts given on somebody’s birthday as well.

Imagine being a Roman woman, not only is your birthday of no importance at all but you had to pretend that you cared enough to make or buy a gift for your husband, father, or other male acquaintances.

Times have definitely changed.

At first, the tradition of gift and present giving was exclusively reserved for the emperor. Roman citizens reigned their lucky emperors with gifts and honored his birthday throughout Italy. But after a time, gift-giving became commonplace and friends and family would gift each other with a present to honor their day of birth just as they would the emperors’.

Why Do We Give Gifts?

There are many reasons we give each other birthday gifts. One such reason is, of course, tradition. As you’ve already seen birthday celebrations have a long and rich history and giving birthday gifts has been practiced for a long time.

But why have we held onto these traditions? I mean there are plenty of traditions that have faded in the winds of time, we no longer burn people at the stake for throwing a birthday bash or bake cakes for the goddess Artemis, so why have we hung onto gift giving?

Well, let’s pull on our lab coats for a few paragraphs because sociology may just have the answers we’re looking for.

Today giving gifts plays an important social role in our society. And much like the ancient Romans did, we use gift-giving to build and reinforce strong relationships that are important to us. Giving somebody a gift is a great way to show just how much we care and appreciate somebody in our lives.

On the other hand, not receiving a gift from someone you were expecting to on your special day can have the opposite effect. It is a very obvious way to tell that perhaps someone doesn’t care for you as much as you thought they did.

We unconsciously land on these assumptions because gifts hold deeply entrenched symbolic meanings in our social standings with one another. They are not only a physical sign of how we care for someone but they also symbolize reciprocity, trust, and cooperation.

This is because gift-giving is a form of debt exchange, you are showing each other you care and are worth caring about. It’s kind of like a silent debt-balance, I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine but we won’t openly talk about it.

As power as giving someone a present can be, gift-giving can be quite a fickle thing and at times very difficult to get right.

Giving a present that is perceived to be too little can show you undervalue a relationship while giving an extraordinarily expensive gift can cause embarrassment.

It’s a tough thing to get right but it’s definitely not impossible.

You just have to know how to choose a present.

I’ll show you what I mean.

The Most Popular Birthday Presents

To dodge any embarrassment or avoid offending someone you care about, giving an appropriate birthday present is crucial.

So what’s the most popular birthday present?

Well, it’s no longer an Egyptian crown or a sacrificial Grecian sheep. Nope, birthday presents have come a long way since back in the day…

…lucky for the sheep.

Of course, what you give to others for their birthday is totally up to you. However, there are some things you may wish to consider when you’re planning to give a loved one a birthday gift.

Perhaps try these following tips to ensure you nail your next gift give.

  1. Make the process of receiving your gift fun. One way to do this is by getting creative with the packaging. Something like the old a small box in a medium-sized box in a larger box is trick is always fun. If you have a sustainably-minded friend or loved one, try wrapping the person’s gift in newspaper or old magazine pages, trust me they’ll appreciate that. Or maybe send them on a scavenge hunt to find their present. You’ll be surprised by how much people enjoy little gestures such as these, it shows you’ve gone that extra mile which will make them really special.
  2. Buy an experience rather than a physical gift. Books, undies, and necklaces are all great but over your lifetime these types of gifts can get a little old. Instead, why not gift someone with an experience. Something like a day at a theme park, a meal at their favorite restaurant, or even shout them to see a new movie. It may not seem like much but often people will appreciate these gestures more than just another gift-wrapped set of underwear.
  3. Do some snooping and find out what they really need. Get that special someone something they really need. It seems obvious to say but not so obvious when you are in the store gift hunting. Think back to previous conversations you’ve had with that person, maybe they mentioned something in passing that they’d really like. Even if it seemed insignificant at the time, they’ll really appreciate the fact you listened and remembered what they’d said more than the actual gift.


Starbucks Rewards offers a free drink and slice of cake in your birthday month – but only if you’re in the gold tier

Where Did The Birthday Song Come From?

Where the birthday song came from is not really clear. The closest thing we’re likely to ever get to the truth is a little contentious at best. But the closest guess? The Happy Birthday Song is a precursor and likely a folk adaptation of a song called Good Morning To All.

Good Morning To All was written in Louisville by the Patty and Mildred Hill sisters way back in the 1890s. It was sung by Patty’s kindergarten students and has the exact same melody as the Happy Birthday song, although the words go like this:

Good Morning to You

Good Morning to You

Good Morning Dear Teacher

Good Morning to All

Mildred was said to be the musician and Patty the lyricist. The sisters would work away on different songs each night in the family’s Louisville home and the very next day Patty would take their newly tweaked melodies and try it out on her students. The pair did this until they finally came up with a version of the song that even the youngest of the children could recite with ease.

Patty and Mildred published the Good Morning song in a book called Song Stories for Children in 1893, the sisters copyrighted this work and it was exhibited that year at Chicago’s World Fair.

According to Patty the same Good Morning to All melody was adapted by the Kindergarten school and the students would also sing a version they dubbed Good-Bye to You, Happy Vacation to You, and when it was somebodies birthday they, of course, sang Happy Birthday to You.

The Happy Birthday Song Is Copyrighted

Although the Happy Birthday song is sung on joyous occasions, that’s not to say it doesn’t have a somewhat murky background.

Patty was quoted saying “I was never a money-grubber”, claiming she was more interested in her students education over making money. She admitted that neither herself nor her sister ever copyrighted the lyrics of Happy Birthday, nevertheless the song grew in popularity and quickly spread across the country.

Fast forward to 2013 and a filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, filed a lawsuit challenging the Happy Birthday song’s copyright. The copyright of the song was claimed to be owned by Warner/Chappell music publishers who say they were granted rights to it back in 1935. And this has stood true, the company claiming royalties and anyone wanting to use it would have to pay fees to the company.

However, that has all since changed.

The US District Judge George King, who was overseeing the lawsuit, ruled that the copyright transfer deal that Warner/Chappel had relied upon to claim royalties was invalid.

Warner/Chappell had been collecting around $2 million USD per year from people who used the song in creative works such as television shows and movies. In fact, until this legal case had settled people legally weren’t even allowed to sing the song in public without paying some form of remuneration to the Warner company.

The court has since ordered Warner/Chappell to pay back around $14 million USD to those who had paid for licensing in the past. The song once again back in the hands of the public, I’m sure just as Patty and Mildred would have liked it.

Why Do Stores Give Birthday Rewards?

Developing an emotional attachment between your brand and your customers is fundamental to customer acquisition, customer retention, and maximum customer lifetime value. A lack of emotional attachment makes it easier for customers to jump ship and float on over to one of your competitors.

To avoid this form of customer mutiny, cultivate a touch of brand love.

The best way to do this?

Leverage your customers’ birthdays, of course. This can be accomplished in two main ways.

Let’s take a quick look at these now.

Birthday Emails

Birthday emails should be apart of any brand’s marketing strategy. Why? Because they are super effective.

Emotional attachment and brand love 101, remember a customer’s birthday and they will reward you with:

  • 179 percent higher open rates than other promotional emails (Experian).
  • 342 percent higher revenue acquisition per email compared to other promotional emails (Experian).
  • 481 percent higher transaction rate than other promotional emails (Experian).

Birthday Offers

The other way to pull on your customers’ heartstrings is to offer them redeemable birthday offers. A dual-channel approach has been shown to work best, offers that can be redeemed both in-store and online. However, online redeemable offers through eCommerce are nearly just as effective.

And it appears that mystery birthday offers are the clear winner. Customers appear to love this type of exclusive birthday offer, it has been shown to increase revenue per email by a massive 502 percent.

Final Thoughts

Today, it’s truly hard to believe that birthday traditions weren’t always celebrated.

No cakes, no candles, no presents…

…what’s the point of ever being born.

Thankfully our ancestors came to their senses and we can now enjoy all the fruits of a good birthday party. And as an added bonus we can all sing Happy Birthday without the fear of being sued, which is kinda nice.

But birthdays aren’t just a celebration of somebody’s life, they are also an incredibly powerful marketing tool. If you understand how to leverage your customers’ special day someone’s birthday can not only be a treat for your customers but also for your brand.

With that in mind, it’s well within your interests to create a campaign that will grace your customers with the warm and fuzzies.

If you need help doing that, check out CandyBar’s Birthday Freebies. Our birthday freebies will make it super easy to contact them on their birthday and offer those very powerful and exclusive birthday rewards.

Now you really can have your cake and eat it, easy as that.

Brody Hall

Posted by Brody Hall