April 20th is the anniversary of the birth of both my grandfather and my niece. While my grandfather is no longer with us to celebrate his birthday, we will have dinner and cake tonight in honour of my niece.
The word birthday dates back to the late 14th century, having come from the Old English word byrddæg which meant the anniversary or celebration of one’s birth. At that time, though, it was usually used to commemorate the birth of s very important people, such as kings or saints. Regular folk did not commonly speak of the day on which they were born as their birthday until the 1570s, and about fifty years later they also spoke of their birthnight.
Author’s note: I am disappointed that we no longer speak about our birthnight. I was born at 7pm on a Thursday, and I could really make a thing of saying “tonight is my birthnight!” all day, and “last night was my birthnight!” on the morrow.
By Shakespeare’s time, observation of one’s own birthday was far more commonplace. Not only does Cleopatra acknowledge her own birthday in Antony and Cleopatra, so does the Roman senator Cassius in Julius Caesar V.i: “This is my birthday; as this very day / Was Cassius born.”
In Pericles II.i the first of three fishermen with whom Pericles discusses the king, Simonides, observes that it the king “hath a fair daughter, and tomorrow is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come from all parts of the world to joust and tourney for her love.” This shows that celebrating or at least making note of one’s own birthday was something understood by the regular folk who made up most of Shakespeare’s audiences in the late 1590s and early 1600s.
The tradition of birthday cake also came from Germany in early modern times: presumably as people started to observe their own birthdays, they started celebrating with special food as they had long done for kings’ and saints’ days. By the 1800s, the German tradition of Kinderfest was fully established. This involved presenting the birthday child with a cake topped with candles — one for each year of their life, plus one in the middle of the cake to represent life— which would be kept burning all day, and replaced as they burned down. This was done because they believed people were more vulnerable to evil spirits on their birthdays, and the burning candles would ward those spirits off. After dinner, the cake was presented again, with the candles still burning. The child would make a wish and blow out the candles, with the smoke rising to heaven to keep the evil spirits away once the candles had been extinguished. Then the cake would be shared among the family.
This is very similar to what many people do today, albeit without the religious superstition and all-day candle burning.
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