"If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I'd like to come back as a little flame on a birthday candle sometime. It would be a very short cycle, but man, it would be a happy one."
—Gina Trujillo

Musings about the Meanings of Cake

Eight hours after I thought to myself, on the way out to water the yard, "I really should put up a webpage about cake as a sacrifice," I was looking at unschoolers' blogs with a "next" function on a blogring, and came to this photo:

There's a sign if I've ever seen a sign. And I'm not sure I have, but if I did, I bet it would be just about like that. [The sign was found here, June 10 in archive, but it's not there anymore; sorry]

Not only is it a beautiful photo, and not only did it make me think right then, "YES, I'm making a page," there was sign upon sign. The second photo had the caption "Ada was fascinated with the candles, but was reluctant to blow them out."

Now my Spartacus story! It tied many things together in my life and made me know the depth of Kirby's awareness and thought, even though he was young. I sent it to a little homeschooling loop I was on, and put it in my Kirby-diary. It was written as it unfolded, on 1/17/94, but it was posted here ten years later (2004).

Okay—here's the first report from Spartacus. We're still in the first tape, and we watch it the way we live the rest of our lives, with frequent re-winds and pauses, breaks to eat, and at the moment Kirby is fast-forwarding to the next fight scene while I come and post my press release. (I started taking notes on the back of an envelope as soon as I saw it was getting good!)

The senate has decided to put one of their members in charge of quashing the slave revolt. One of the leaders of the senate bought a live chicken from a passing chicken-wagon and said to a younger senator, "Let's have an old-time sacrifice for [what's-his-name's] success" or something, and Kirby was looking at a book so I said, "Look, Kirby, they're going to sacrifice a chicken!"
(K=Kirby, 8; M= Marty, 6; S=me)

K: What's a chicken?

S: You know—a chicken!

K: You mean a scared guy?

S: No, a bird with feathers—buck, buck, buck. They're going to kill it.

K: Kill a chicken!?!

M: That's really EASY!

(this followed on some discussion of how hard it would be for the guards of a villa to stop fifty trained gladiators, since they had no guns, only hand-to-hand combat.)
S: They're not doing it because it's hard, but to ask a god to help the guy.

M: What, are they killing a SPECIAL chicken!?

(we put the show on pause, and I told them to come where I could explain it to them)
S: You know how Jesus died on the cross?

M (impatiently, like I was changing the subject): Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S: Well that was a human sacrifice. They used to do that a long time ago. If we believed in a god we were afraid of and wanted this god to do something for us and we had a bunch of chickens, we might take the best chicken and kill it, offering its life to that god in exchange for him doing something for us. So you kill the chicken and kind of say a prayer or make a wish."

(They were nodding with recognition, and Marty was headed to turn the show back on,
and then...)
S: It's kind of like when you throw a penny into a fountain or blow out your birthday candle to make a wish.
(Marty just had his birthday on the 14th, and had a single numeral "6" candle.)
K: Oh! Sacrificing a penny, or sacrificing fire.
Wow! When he said that I got a chill. I have had for ten years a theory (one of my collected masters' thesis ideas) of cakes as sacrifices—wedding cakes, birthday cakes, graduation cakes—I'll tell you that one later. I had thought of birthday cakes as "burnt offerings" but had NEVER until Kirby beat me to it had the notion of "sacrificing fire," but sure enough—think about it. What's more valuable to mankind than fire and light? And kids make a secret wish and blow out a fire. I STILL have that creepy, exciting feeling that I just learned something mysterious and wonderful, and I'm 41. Kirby will have known that for 33 years by the time he's my age. Cool!!

So about those cakes—
Cakes are often "personified"—shaped like something or someone (lamb cakes at Easter, Ninja Turtles), or have a name written on, and they are cut by the most honored person at the gathering

(well, they don't have to cut it up—just make the first cut, the kill), often with a special knife, sometimes with a silver knife with ribbons hanging from it, and everyone there is supposed to eat at least a little bit of it. Picture the leftovers of a big buffet spread. Some parts can be wrapped and kept, or chucked in the trash, or fed to pigs, but the remains of the cake BELONG to the guest of honor, and are specially wrapped and presented to take home. Wedding cakes have even MORE elaborate traditions—girls keeping a little piece to put under their pillow to dream of their future husband, brides keeping the top layer (or a piece) for the first anniversary.

A toast is a sacrificial situation, too. People don't toast with a bottle of Coors. They use the most expensive wine or champagne they have or can afford, and everyone there is expected to take a ceremonial sip, and for the bottle to be finished off by the guests at that event. Ju-ju, folks. Ju-ju.

Does this qualify as third and first grade material? At MY "school" it does.

Sandra Dodd

P.S. One of the gladiators is fighting with a trident and a net, and I was telling Kirby that the sea-god Neptune had those things, and he said, "The devil has a trident, too." Hey! Who's teaching whom around here!? (Everyone is learning. )

Subj: Re: chicken sacrifice
Date: Mon, Feb 27, 1995 9:51 AM EDT
From: . . .(Gilbert Head)
To: (Sandra Dodd)


Thanks for sharing the Spartacus story. The notion of fire as means of sacrifice is nothing new, but fire as the OBJECT of sacrifice......not too shabby. Please give your budding Philosopher-King my congratulations, and continue to find useful ways to tickle his neurons, and those of his siblings as well along the way.........

Here's one you can pass back: The reason that the trident is found in the Christian iconography with an evil association (see also, SATAN) dates from the unpleasant experiences Christians had with tridents in less than ideal meeting places such as the Colosseum in Rome. And so the circle closes.......

Gil                 end of flashback...

This story is also about children's responses to a very different culture.

Betty's Birthday
How a Peace Corps worker learned what some African kids thought about a picture of a cake with lit candles.

Zach's 5th birthday celebrated at the Cape, 2007
(click to enlarge)

"This is one of my favorite pictures ever! I don't even know who took it—it was just there on my camera when I went to download pictures. Zach was turning 5. It is magical...and yes, can you imagine what the world would be like if we all could hold onto that sense of wonder and excitement?"—Melinda Gates, from her facebook album, used with permission.

Evie's cake in honor of the inauguration of President Obama
(more information)

Lifted gently from mySpace, "Jacob's 8th Birthday"
I think he's getting advice on a wish.

"He's Five"
click for more of SouleMama's beautiful photos

Kathryn Fettroll & Pineapple Upsidedown Cake

Jalen's 5th Birthday cake...his own version of Spongebob Squarepants. He was SO pleased with it! I remember the beautiful, handmade cakes my Mom made for us. We really loved them, but I don't remember much about them other than the excitement of having cake.

He's making his own Spongebob Squarepants cake

I might be wrong, but I think my children will remember theirs with far greater clarity. Because they have chosen their cakes for years now, often decorating their own creations. I love that look of joy in their eyes when they proudly present their own cake.

The finished cake; Spongebob Squarepants

My Mom was doing something really sweet and kind when she made them, but we were not part of the process. I'm glad my children get to own their experiences in a much richer way than I ever did at that age. 🙂

Ren Allen

Jonas' 10th birthday, photo by Daniel Clark:

Marin Holmes' first fondant cake decorations, March 2012:

click to enlarge

From a conversation one day, about life's milestones:

I think confirmation says "I've thought about it, and I'm ready to stop thinking about it." Only most of them never thought about it, their mom just says one day "Let's go shopping for clothes for your confirmation! There will be cake!"

How many long-term commitments are bought with cake. Marriages offer the biggest cakes of all. "You want to marry me? There will be cake!"

Here's another time a different topic turned quickly to cake. The child's name was changed to be nice.

SandraDodd wrote:
I've heard WAY too many kids' moms say to them, "Here, let me do that."

They didn't even help, they just took over, brushing the kid aside without even a glance at his face or sad eyes.

Kelly Lovejoy wrote:
The worst example I've witnessed if this was at a little girl's birthday party. I think she was six. Her mother lit the candles of her cake, carried it over to the waiting birthday girl while we sang.

The MOM then blew out the candles!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mae's face turned white and tear-y. (Mine was RED! But I was tongue-tied!) Mom cut the cake and the party continued, but I was totally stunned. I STILL can't get over it!

Poor Mae.

Sandra says in retrospect: That is serious evidence of the breach of REALITY the mother created by not allowing that child to do her cakely duty. Birthdays only come once a year, and to fail to give a ceremony like that all its gravity is not cool.

If I were to go back to school, maybe a master's in anthropology studying food and anniversaries and the vestiges of animal sacrifice... yeah! Or other people can borrow my ideas IF THEY CREDIT ME! May cake turn to ashes in the mouths of any who would swipe my ideas uncredited. Yucky ashes. Gag-you ashes, no frosting. So don't. Cool.

This is sort of a random find, but interesting and backs up something about the rarified nature of cake. I found it by putting "cake" and "sacrifice" into google, but it wasn't about cake-as-sacrifice.

For example, imagine that someone told you this story: "Ben was at a birthday party. He took the last piece of cake. And it wasn't even his party!" That might make you think that Ben is selfish. But what if the story went like this: "Ben was at a birthday party. He took the last piece of cake only after he made sure everyone else had had enough." In both stories, Ben ate the last piece of cake, but one makes him look bad while the other makes him look good.
A Canadian WWII story on a site about conscientious objectors and alternative service—the story is told just incidentally, the third or fourth paragraph.

Leftover cake links:

Cakes decorated to look like medieval books (which ties in to medieval books and book worship)

"Sacrificing ourselves is no piece of cake" from a poem here

Buddhist Rice Cake Offering, kind of in costume, it seems, and a haiku about them

Wedding cake as fertility symbol? (short article; no references; can't vouch)

Speaking of fertility symbols, this page has a cake with a Maypole on it! Beautiful.
(that page has dissolved, but this might produce some may cakes: Maypole Cake search I hope)

And here are more books (Playford's dancing master book and Negri's Le Gratie d'Amore)

Ratings of Things you Put on a Birthday Cake (fun site; once you're there, poke around a bit)

Someone left the cake out in the Where!? What!?

I saved this a long time ago, and this seems a good place to put it.

ANGEL'S FOOD: When John O'Neill of Monona, Wis., tried to order a cake with "a slightly off-color slogan" on it, the bakery refused. "I didn't like being censored by a bakery," he said, so he started his own baking business, The Naughty Baker. That was 15 years ago, and he's learned a few things about people in that time. Women, for instance, have no problem buying cakes shaped as naked females for their husband's parties, but men will almost never order naked men cakes. "It's like -- jeez, are they threatened by a cake?" O'Neill wonders. "We've done cakes that would embarrass a biker," he says, but there is one place where he draws the line. "I don't do flowers. They can go anywhere else and get a cake with flowers on it." (AP) ...No flowered cakes, only deflowered ones.

It was in This is True the first week of October 1996

IN KOREA Wait, time out! Since I started watching Korean dramas in 2015, lots of my enthusiastic stories start with "In Korea..."

In Korea, birthday cakes have one tall candle for a decade, and shorter ones for single years. So someone who is 29 will have two tall candles and 9 short ones. Next year, just three tall ones. The tall ones are very thin.

I don't know these people, but the cake reads "26." 🙂
They sing a Happy Birthday song almost like ours, with Korean lyrics, and with the addition of some clapping that shows that they've changed the rhythm just enough to confuse people entirely, who know it the north-American way (and the increasingly international way).

photo by Karen James, of Ethan's cake, in 2015

Jeremiah 44:19: And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her, and pour out drink offerings unto her, without our men?

Jeremiah seems to have been against it (this queen of heaven was definitely not the latter-day Catholic Queen of Heaven, who probably got cakes too, many centuries later). From a site discussing this: "The cakes bore the image of the goddess (Jer. 44:19), which perhaps means that the cakes were made in molds. Archaeologists have found what seem to be baking molds shaped like female fertility figure."

Maybe it was Ishtar (Babylonian) or Ashtoreth/Astarte (Canaanite), this site suggests. They cite the same verse; some translations say "to worship" and some say "in her image." [click to read that verse in context]

Death by Angel Food Cake
Not "cake as sacrifice," this time. Caren Knox recommended the story, which had been lost, then archived, and I've restored it with some images and working links.

Mostly-unrelated ideas about sacrifice
and other magical-thinking problems of parents