It’s widely known that Christmas has its roots in the blood-soaked pagan traditions for the winter solstice. What may be less well known is the origin of the delightful gingerbread people. At a symbolic level, these sugary snacks may be no more than a proxy for human sacrifice.
The tradition of backing cookies in human form dates back to the grandfather of modern-day Christmas, the Roman winter celebration of Saturnalia. At this time, Romans honored the god Saturn. His name stems from the Latin verb to sow (seed) — sero, satum — and “proclaims his original area of concern”1.
Between December 17th– 25th, Romans celebrated the rambunctious feast of Saturnalia by closing their courts, so misbehavior could reign supreme. During Saturnalia, nobody could be punished for injuring property or person.
During Saturnalia, slaves feasted like their masters (who waited on them) and could even be lippy towards them. Roman citizens wore colorful dinner clothes deemed inappropriate for daytime. And, everyone, including slaves donned the pilleus, a conical hat indicative of free status.
In Lucian’s dialog Saturnalia, the ancient Greek poet recounts the festival’s observance. Drunkenness prevailed along with sexual license and naked “caroling” (going from house to house singing in the buff).
The revelry had its dark side however. At the beginning of the week, Roman officials picked a Lord of Misrule who, according to some sources, they forced to indulge in food and sensual pleasures throughout the week. On December 25th, they would kill this Lord of Misrule to extinguish the forces of darkness. Rape was widespread.
Celebrants ate human-shaped biscuits and gave wax dolls to children. “A charming custom, no doubt, but with a macabre past,” writes Alexander Murray about the wax dolls. “Even contemporaries thought this probably a vestige of human sacrifice, of children, to aid the sowing2.”
The flavor of Saturnalia’s human-shaped biscuits is not recorded. Human-shaped biscuits continued to be eaten into the Middle Ages. (The form is probably more significant than the flavor.)
Elizabeth I had gingerbread cookies made in the likeness of some of her most important guests. This, however, makes me wonder who ate whose cookie. Did you eat your own biscuit, or did somebody else gobble “you” up? In either case, whether unconscious or deliberate, at a symbolic level important guests were consuming themselves or others.
Does our Christmas custom of baking gingerbread men hearken to a darker past? Are these cute cookies a vestigial proxy for human sacrifice? Their persistence through the millenia makes it seem likely. And, if that’s the case, then why do pagan winter solstice traditions linger on far beyond their founding religion?