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Birthday candles originally were placed on cakes to bring birthday wishes up to God. In ancient times, people prayed over the flames of an open fire. They believed that the smoke carried their thoughts up to the gods. Today, we believe, that if you blow out all your candles in one breath, your wish will come true.
We put candles on birthday cakes to honor the birthday person - usually one candle for each year. The custom goes back to the ancient Greeks, when worshippers of Artemis, goddess of the moon and hunting, used to put honey cakes on the altars of her temple on the sixth day of every month. It was believed that the candles had the power to grant a wish and ensure a happy year. The wish had to remain secret and would come true only if all the candles were blown out with one puff. The candles lost their magical power if the wish was uttered aloud.
Light from the sun or from fire had very early religious and mystical significance.
Candles also have a long association with the measurement of time.
Using small tapers to light a special cake for a birthday celebration also seems to have begun in Germany, in the 18th century or earlier. The tradition of Kinderfest, a birthday celebration for a child, with a birthday cake surrounded by lighted candles, was already well established by 1799, judging by a letter written by Goethe recounting the celebration of his fiftieth birthday.
By 1921, an American candle manufacturer was advertising its tiny "Lilliputian Candle in 6 popular shades" available in boxes of mixed colors. Six years later, cooks in rural areas and cities all over the U.S. could order cake candles and candle holders from the Sears Roebuck catalog.