Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
(The Washington Post; based on iStock imagery)

Part of a series of stories on experiences that the pandemic has curtailed — and whether they’re worth saving.

Picture the scene in its nostalgic innocence, the way it’s always been captured in photo albums and home movies: family and friends huddled together, voices raised in song; a smiling face illuminated by flickering flames atop a colorful cake; a momentary darkness when the music ends and the room fills with the distinctive whiff of blown-out birthday candles.

Now imagine it again, this time having spent 100-something days in quarantine, barraged by news graphics detailing the spit-plume that erupts from our faces every time we speak, laugh, sing or cough. Visualize that same gathering of loved ones, hovering shoulder-to-shoulder, cheering as someone forcibly exhales a blast of aerosolized germs across the surface of a communal dessert.

Will we ever go back to that? Someday, when we are freed from pandemic purgatory, when our birthday parties no longer involve a grid of pixelated faces on a computer screen, will we still dim the lights and sing as a glowing cake slowly glides into the room? Should we even want to go back?

“The tradition of blowing out candles on a cake has always kind of grossed me out, to be honest, even before covid-19,” says Caissie St. Onge, a comedy writer and television producer in Los Angeles. “I played the trumpet for years, and have always known too well just how much spit a person’s breath contains.” Sure, she’s gone along with it at family parties — “it makes for a festive moment and better pictures,” she says — but unless the candle-blower is her husband or her kid, she’s passing on dessert. “Why would I want to eat something I just saw you blow on?” she asks. “No thanks.”

But for those who never played in the horn section of the band, a cake crowned with candles might still represent something more pure. Jennifer Carlson, a 45-year-old human resources director and mom of two sets of twins in Florida, still remembers the climactic moments of her own childhood birthday parties — the mesmerizing glow of the flames, her parents turning off the lights, all of her favorite people surrounding her. She still remembers the year she wished for a princess doll, and actually got one, and how that made her feel: “Almost as if magic really does happen,” she says. “I do hope the tradition of blowing out candles on the cake continues.”

History suggests it will, in one form or another. The pairing of cakes and candles has been part of humanity’s story since ancient Greece, says Bethanne Patrick, an author and Washington Post contributor, who researched the origin of birthday cakes and candles for her book “An Uncommon History of Common Things.” Back then, candles were ceremonially placed atop a cake and brought as a worshipful offering to the temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, Patrick says.

Birthday parties were added to the mix in 18th-century Germany, Patrick says, thanks in part to one Count Ludwig Von Zinzindorf, who celebrated his birthday in 1746 with a lavish bash featuring a massive cake festooned with candles. Germans started placing a candle on cakes — the fire was meant to represent the light of life itself — to celebrate their children’s birthdays. “Candles on cakes evolved from ceremony to extravagance to a celebration for regular people,” Patrick says.

From the start, the act of extinguishing the flames was infused with potent symbolism. “The original idea is that the smoke would carry your wish up to the gods,” Patrick says. “As part of the process of individuation in the industrial age, it became increasingly about a single person’s wish instead of the wish of a community. When you blew out the candle, that carried your wish out to the universe.”

The tradition took root in the United States at the end of the 19th century, before the devastation wrought by the 1918 flu pandemic. Patrick couldn’t say for sure how birthday parties were affected or altered during that particular chapter of history — but that pandemic obviously didn’t stop anyone from blowing out birthday candles once the crisis had ended, which perhaps reveals something about how quickly germophobia subsides once an imminent threat has passed.

And it’s not like prior warnings have done much to dissuade us. In 2017, a widely circulated study (unappetizingly titled “Bacterial Transfer Associated With Blowing Out Candles on a Birthday Cake”) revealed that “blowing out the candles over the icing surface resulted in 1400% more bacteria compared to icing not blown on” — meaning that any microorganisms dwelling in the candle-blower’s respiratory tract would probably make their way onto your plate. Ugh — and yet, the upshot was still that the scenario is pretty harmless: “In reality if you did this 100,000 times, then the chance of getting sick would probably be very minimal,” one of the study’s authors told the Atlantic.

Candle industry experts aren’t worried about the future of this tradition. Kathy LaVanier, president of the National Candle Association, says she’s talked to wholesalers and retailers who report no sign of waning sales — in fact, “they’re seeing exponential growth in the baking category as a whole, and birthday candles haven’t slowed down at all,” she says. “I think people are definitely still doing it. If it’s just you and your kids at home and your kids are going to blow out the candles and it’s just your family eating the cake, I don’t think people are going to worry. And from an industry perspective, a couple of the people I’ve spoken to said that cupcakes have become more popular in recent years anyway.”

Given everything we’re going through as a country, “I don’t think people are going to be inclined right now to give up things that make them feel good,” she adds. “If anything, we’re going to gravitate toward wanting to do more of that.”

Some day, we’ll hit the dance floor again. And it will be glorious.

When something is worth saving, we find ways to make it work — and within the constraints of quarantine, people are already coming up with inventive workarounds: They place a single candle atop an individual cupcake. They wave their hands to extinguish the flames. They poke candles through a paper plate to fashion a homemade cake shield. They offer alternative dessert options for those who have long cringed at the thought of breath-fogged frosting. They applaud the ceremonial birthday candle blowout from a safe distance, through glowing screens, until someday they hopefully won’t have to anymore.

But maybe the return we long for isn’t really about candles, anyway. It’s the ritual that surrounds them — the creation of a happy memory, the voices of friends joined in a familiar melody, our family members gathered to celebrate the passage of another year of life — that feels, especially now, like something worth wishing for.