Party time!

Ancient idea, probably much older than written history. The harvest is in. It’s not yet time to plant again. We’re stuck indoors with each other. What do you do with the time between two seasons of heavy work? Why not have a festival? Ancient societies clustered around the Mediterranean perfected this idea over centuries — and gave us traditions still in use today.


Four thousand years ago or so, ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.

Sun-worshipping Egyptians had the idea.


Sacaea was the Persian version.

The annual renewal festival of the Babylonians was adopted by the Persians. One of the themes of these festivals was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and slaves exchanged places. A mock king was crowned. Masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed.


Those Romans knew how to party.

The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome, in a festival to the ancient god of seed-time, Saturn.The people gave themselves up to wild joy. They feasted, they gave gifts, they decorated their homes with greenery.

The usual order of the year was suspended: grudges and quarrels forgotten; wars interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts, schools closed. Rich and poor were equal, slaves were served by masters, children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. A mock king — the Lord of Misrule — was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.

As Roman culture became more licentious, so did Saturnalia. You can well imagine…

But don't take my word for it...

Read it from the pen of Seneca the younger…he writes here about Rome during Saturnalia around 50 A.D:It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business….Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.
From the Epistolae

A recipe with an ancient heritage

Or choosing the King of the Bean.

Saturnalia and related festivals of its day were ruled by a mock king, chosen by bean ballot. This evolved into the holiday practice of baking a cake containing a bean. Eventually, this tradition was linked to Twelfth Night. Medieval versions contained a bean and a pea…one for the King and the other for the Queen. A Candlegrove visitor explains the tradition thusly: “The Bean is for the King and the Pea is for the Queen. If a female gets the bean or a male gets the pea then they get the honor of choosing the King or Queen.”TWELFTH DAY CAKE

1/2 cup rum
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup currants
1 cup seedless dark raisins
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon mace
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 dried pea
1 dried bean
1/2 cup blanched almonds, roughly chopped
3 cups flour, approximately
Fancy Icing

In a bowl, combine the rum with the raisins and currants. Let stand for several hours. Drain the fruit and reserve the rum.Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Grease a 10-inch cake pan that is at least 3 inches deep with butter or shortening. Line with baking parchment.

Cream butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time until very light and frothy. Beat in 3 T of the reserved rum and stir in the spices and lemon rind. Stir in the pea and the bean. Stir in the almonds and the flour and mix well to make a smooth batter. Fold in the rum-soaked fruit.

Spoon the batter into prepared cake pan and bake at 275 degrees F for about 2 hours, or until cake tester comes out clean. Let cool in cake pan until just warm. Turn cake out onto cooling rack and peel away baking parchment. When completely cool spread top with Fancy Icing.


2 egg whites, room temperature
pinch salt
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Beat egg whites with salt till very frothy. Beat in sugar and lemon juice till stiff peaks form. Add more sugar if needed to make a stiff paste. You can separate out portions to color with food coloring.

Fun yes, but fear as well.

The ancient fear engendered by the failing of the light shaped a striking legend that continued into Greek culture when the Greeks became Christian. It’s the story of the Kallikantzaroi–ugly monsters of chaos who, during most of the year, are forced underground. During the 12 days of Christmas, the demons are said to roam freely on the earth’s surface. They are known more for malicious practical joking than any real harm–braiding horse’s tails, souring milk, putting out the home fire in a particularly indelicate manner.To scare them away, the Greeks kept their Christmas log burning. They also burned old shoes, believing the smell would repel the creatures.

Any child born during the twelve days was in danger of becoming a Kallikantzaroi. The antidote? Binding the baby in tresses of garlic or straw, or singeing the child’s toenails!

Constantine, early ecumenist.

A fascinating book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” discusses the pragmatic political motives of the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine, who first moved the celebration of Christmas to December 25. The authors claim that Constantine followed the cult of Sol Invictus, a monotheistic form of sun worship that originated in Syria and was imposed by Roman emperors on their subjects a century earlier.

"His primary, indeed obsessive, objective was unity -- unity in politics, in religion, and in territory. A cult or state religion that included all other cults within it obviously helped to achieve this objective...In the interests of unity, Constantine deliberately chose to blur the distinctions among Christianity, Mithraism [another Sun cult of the time] and Sol Invictus..."

That’s why Constantine decreed that Sunday — “the venerable day of the sun” would be the official day of rest. (Early Christians before then celebrated their holy day on the Jewish Sabbath — Saturday.)That’s also why — by his edict, the book claims — the celebration of Jesus’ birthday was moved from January 6th (Epiphany today) to December 25, celebrated by the cult of Sol Invictus as Natilis Invictus, the rebirth of the sun (confused yet? don’t be!)

And are you wondering about the concept of the 12 Days of Christmas? The midwinter festival of the ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth of Horus (the prototype of the earthly king) son of Isis (the divine mother-goddess). It was 12 days long, reflecting their 12-month calendar. This concept took firm root in many other cultures. In 567 AD, Christians adopted it. Church leaders proclaimed the 12 days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season.