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Happy Birthday!

It’s birthday season in our family. All eight Grands were born between March 17 and June 8. All spring babies. And that means birthday cakes, candles, and singing “Happy Birthday.” The perfect picture is the birthday boy or girl blowing out the candles while everyone else sings. So how did this tradition begin? Why do we have birthday cakes? Why candles? Who wrote “Happy Birthday?”

Birthday cakes were traditional for Ancient Romans. They celebrated someone’s birth with pastry and one theory about birthday candles goes back to that time. People brought cakes adorned with lit candles to the temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The candles’ glow was like the glow of the moon, a symbol associated with Artemis, and it was believed that the smoke carried prayers to the heavens. Today’s tradition of making wishes before blowing out birthday candles may have come from that belief.

Or maybe the tradition of birthday candles can be credited to the Germans. In the 1700s, the Germans traditionally placed one lit candle on a cake to celebrate children’s birthdays. The candle symbolized the light of life. In 1746, a Count celebrated his birthday with an extravagant festival. According to an article in Mental Floss, published January 2014, “there was a Cake as large as any Oven could be found to bake it, and Holes made in the Cake according to the Years of the Person’s Age, every one having a Candle stuck into it, and one in the Middle.”

It’s no surprise to me that “Happy Birthday” was written by a schoolteacher. Teachers have always come up with little ditties to lighten the work of a school day. In 1893, a Kentucky kindergarten teacher, Patty Hill, and her older sister wrote the original lyrics: “”Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all.”

Later, in the early 1900s the lyrics were changed to become our beloved birthday song. A song sung around kitchen tables, in banquet halls, at the grandest of parties. In movies and radio. And then, in 1934, the Hill sisters secured a copyright over the song if it was sung for profit.

In 1988, after a series of acquisitions, Warner Music became the owners of “Happy Birthday” and reported earning $2 million yearly. Half of those royalties went into The Hill Foundation, set up in the sisters’ honor. But there were rumblings and arguments that the song belonged to public.

In 2013, a filmmaker filed a lawsuit against Warner Music over the copyright. Two years later “Happy Birthday” was declared public domain and royalties for its use would no longer be paid to Warner Music. “Happy Birthday” should belong to the public. I never imagined it otherwise. It’s the most sung song.

I’m thankful to Ancient Romans, Germans, and a kindergarten teacher who all contributed to making our family birthday celebrations fun. What would a birthday be without cake, candles, and singing?

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