Happy Birthday Matthew Vassar, and the Pre-Rihanna History of Birthday Cake
Well, happy birthday, Matty Vass. Thanks for another year of good times and Kisok lines. You’d be about as old as a dinosaur now—Founder’s Day co-chairs: NOICE. It’s clear that our founder liked a stein every now and again, but I wonder if M.V. was a fan of cake. Did he have birthday cakes shaped like Main Building? Maybe he only ate Vassar Devil’s made by some sad girl who was assigned Campus Dining for work-study. While birthday traditions held by our dear Matthew will forever be shadowed by the beer truck, the history of birthday cakes is widely1 and hotly debated.
I’m not even kidding, I clicked on three links titled “Birthday Cake” before realizing that the so-titled Rihanna song is more popular than the celebratory confection itself. And though it seems he truly “want that cake,” more than the average individual, birthday cake has held a special place in the hearts of children since the years when Ancient Greeks observed the tradition. Artemis, the lunar goddess, was celebrated with honeyed breads in which revelers stuck lit candles to represent the moon’s glowing light. In Rome, the birthday bashes extended beyond celebrations of gods and goddesses to the men of households and official figures. While public holidays commemorating the birth (or death) dates of famous citizens are recorded around the globe, Romans are considered the first peoples to celebrate non-religious birthdays inside the home. Unfortunately, Roman women did not celebrate their birthdays until the 12th century, at which point a small old woman stood up in an Ancient Roman bakery and asked for an Under the Sea themed ice cream cake.2 Meanwhile, the burgeoning Christian Church celebrated one birthday, and one birthday only. The record-breaking, “This Is The Messiah’s Party And He Can Die If He Wants To” celebration3 introduced the concept of birthday cakes to both Catholic and Protestant nations, likely a response to everyone being upset about the Roman holiday of Saturnalia fading from popularity.
Birthday celebrations took off from these humble beginnings, in various iterations around the world. Zhuazhou, the celebration of a child’s first birthday, incorporated gifts into the tradition. Parents and relatives who attended these birthday celebrations placed objects like dim sum treats, paper and ink, spiritual texts, thread, etc., in front of the child so that the child chose one without guidance. Today, Zhuazhou is celebrated to express well wishes for the child’s education and development. Dim sum, however, is not the same as cake.
In the late 18th century, German birthday celebrations began to take the form of most Western birthday celebrations today. Kinderfeste incorporated cake and candles, as well as a new tradition of blowing the candles out. Children received cakes with one candle for each year they had been alive, plus another candle to symbolize the hope of living another year. Blowing out the candles acted as prayer for good health and happiness, and also a super sick action figure.4 As Kinderfeste grew in popularity, birthday celebrations became prominent annual holidays, personalized by family and friends, while sugary birthday cakes were a luxury only available to the very wealthy who were able to procure expensive ingredients. However, Europe’s Industrial Revolution allowed for mass food production and bakeries began producing pre-made cakes at lower costs. By the 19th century, Western birthdays were celebrated for children and adults, among families, friends, and communities. In 1924, the addition of song finalized the image of the typical Western birthday party; Robert Coleman changed the lyrics of an 1893 schoolhouse song to create “Happy Birthday To You.”5
I’ve always celebrated my birthdays with pie. Cake is too spongy and not very good when it’s warm. And tbh, my birthday falls pretty close to Thanksgiving so pumpkin pie is what most stores are stocking, anyway. However, pie doesn’t bring to mind most birthday celebrations I fondly remember. Looking back, I remember accidentally dropping a piece of cake with blue icing on a neighbor’s patio and watching silently as an old Dachshund ate all of it without breathing. I remember the time my cousin’s party hosted a magician whose tricks all required audience participation and I peed my pants when he cracked a fake egg on my head. I remember the frosting horses on one of my own childhood cakes looking like cat poop. Most of all, I remember each moment before making a wish: believing, holding breath—and, later, trying to recreate the lean à la Sixteen Candles6—then extinguishing them all in one spit-filled gust. For me, birthday cake recalls a certain childhood awkwardness; it has a backyard-dusty-picnic-table feeling that makes me nostalgic for growing up. Whether or not Matthew Vassar enjoyed his sugar sponge with sugar glue frosting, the fact remains that birthdays are opportunities for happiness. And, as Pharrell says, “happiness is the icing to the cake called life.”7
1. ”Widely” refers to the numerous Huffington Post, Wikipedia, and About.com articles that say so.
2. Unproven, but probable.
3. Would you believe me if I said that this was the theme of my communion after party?
4. Common Kinderfeste action figures looked a lot like today’s Bratz dolls.
5. The song’s added verses about smelly monkeys and Scooby Doo were penned by birthday-baller, Misao Okawa, who turned 116 years old in March and had a cake with mismatched candles because literally how many Party City stores carry triple-digit options?
6. This move didn’t actually get me any closer to Justin, as I’d hoped, only closer to the flame that would require me to trim my hair the next morning.