The Western tradition of adding lit candles to the top of a birthday cake originates in 18th century Germany. However, the intertwining of cakes and birthday celebrations stretch back to the Ancient Romans.
The development of the birthday cake has followed the development of culinary and confectionery advancement. While throughout most of Western history, these elaborate cakes in general were the privilege of the wealthy, birthday cakes are nowadays common to most Western birthday celebrations.
Around the world many variations on the birthday cake, or rather the birthday pastry or sweets, exist.
The cake, or sometimes a pastry or dessert, is served to a person on his or her birthday. In contemporary Western cultures, two rituals are prominent: the singing of the traditional birthday song and the blowing out of candles decorating the cake by the birthday person.
The service of a birthday cake is often preceded by the singing of Happy Birthday to You in English speaking countries, or an equivalent birthday song. In fact, the phrase "Happy Birthday" did not appear on birthday cakes until the song Happy Birthday to You was popularized in the early 1900s. Variations on birthday song rituals exist.
For example, in New Zealand, the Happy Birthday to You is sung out of tune and is followed by clapping, once for each year of the persons life and once more for good luck. In Uruguay, party guests touch the birthday person's shoulder or head following the singing of Happy Birthday to You.
The birthday cake is often decorated with taper candles, secured with special holders or simply pressed down into the cake. In North America and the U.K., the number of candles is equal to the age of the individual whose birthday it is, sometimes with one extra for luck. Traditionally the birthday person makes a private wish, which will be realized if all the candles are extinguished in a single breath.
In Western nations birthday cake is sometimes served with ice cream.
A birthday cake is shared amongst all the people attending a birthday party. This represents sharing of joy and togetherness. As a courtesy, it reflects one's hospitality and respect for guests.