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What do the three candles on a birthday cake mean?

The tradition of putting candles on birthday cakes dates back centuries, but the meaning behind the candles has evolved over time. These days, the candles hold a symbolic meaning about life stages and wishes for the future.

The History of Birthday Candles

The earliest known mention of placing candles on birthday cakes comes from 18th century Germany. However, the tradition likely began even earlier. Before electric lights were invented, candles served as an important light source and were considered special occasion decorations. Placing candles on a birthday cake allowed the cake to be seen and appreciated by party guests.

Over time, the number of candles came to signify the celebrant’s age. Records show that in the 1800s, friends and family would place one candle for each year of the birthday person’s life. The burning candles symbolized another year lived. Blowing out the candles represented a hope or wish for the new year ahead.

The Tradition of Three Candles

The tradition of specifically putting three candles on a first birthday cake emerged in the late 1800s. There are a few possible origins behind the meaning of the three candles:

  • They may represent the Christian Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • They may signify life stages – the newborn passed infancy and babyhood and reached the third stage of early childhood.
  • They may represent the wishes made for the baby’s life – wishing for health, happiness and prosperity.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, three candles became the standard on first birthday cakes. Additional candles were added for each subsequent year. The three candle tradition was widespread in Western culture, especially in the United States.

The Meaning Today

Over time, the tradition of three candles took on additional significance:

  • The first candle represents the past. It commemorates the baby’s first year of life.
  • The second candle represents the present. It celebrates the baby’s big day and the joy of turning one year old.
  • The third candle represents the future. It symbolizes the hopes and dreams for the years yet to come.

This meaning is still commonly used for first birthday cakes today. After age one, parents may choose to add the number of candles corresponding to the child’s age or stick with just the three candles.

Make a Wish!

No matter how many candles adorn the cake, the act of making a wish and blowing them out remains an important birthday tradition. Friends and family sing as the candles are lit and encourage the birthday boy or girl to think of their wish before blowing them out.

The wish itself is part of the tradition’s folklore and superstition. Hoping for their wish to come true, the birthday person knows to keep their wish secret. Once the candles are out, tradition says that if they can blow them all out in one breath, their special wish will indeed come true in the year ahead.


While the options for cake design keep growing, placing symbolic birthday candles on top is a tradition that continues. The meaning behind three candles and the celebration they bring remains an important part of cultural birthday celebrations today.