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Fava beans at Christmas: Cake, Excess and the Lord of Misrule

Perhaps surprisingly fava beans have a long association with Christmas and the midwinter festivals that preceded it, including a traditional cake that we think is well worth reviving.

Fava beans were domesticated early in the history of agriculture and so completely that, unlike wheat and barley, no trace of their immediate wild relative has been found. They emerged from the Fertile Crescent (an area stretching from present day Iraq through Syria and Israel to Egypt) at least 10,000 years ago and by the Iron Age had made it to Britain.

Always an important food crop, before becoming a Northern European staple fava beans played a significant role in Greek and Roman diets and inevitably they've picked up a rich cultural history over the millennia. Roman funeral rites, the cult of Pythagoras and Wiccan ceremonies all celebrated the bean as a connection to the afterlife; the black spot on the white flowers was said to be where Hades had touched them and the hollow stems of the plants a gateway to the underworld. It’s perhaps unsurprising to hear that fava beans were (are) important in pagan rites and folk traditions – what’s more surprising is the role they still play in Christmas today.

Saturnalia, the Roman festival of excess

Temple of Saturn (right)
The Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum  (on right). Photo by Robert Lowe licensed under Creative Commons

Christmas borrows heavily from the midwinter festivals it replaced, one of the most important being Saturnalia, the Roman celebration for Saturn. Saturnalia was a festival of excess where the normal order of things was reversed; slaves could speak freely and accepted etiquettes were abandoned or ignored. 

The Lord of Misrule

To oversee the Saturnalia festivities households and communities would elect a king, a master of ceremonies or Lord of Misrule who would issue absurd edicts that had to be obeyed. The king was usually chosen by lottery and a ritual cake was baked with single dry fava bean inside; the person who got that slice became king (unfortunately they also often ended up being sacrificed at the end of Saturnalia).

The tradition of the king cake and of a Lord of Misrule were an important part of Christmas in Britain until relatively recently - Samuel Pepys mentions them in his diary – but today both are largely forgotten aside, perhaps, from the sixpence hidden in the Christmas pudding. However, in much of the rest of the Christian world the tradition is very much alive and Epiphany (January 6th) is the day to eat king cake. The person who finds the bean (or more commonly these days some other trinket) is king or queen of the feast - in France king cakes are sold with a paper crown.

Reviving the king cake in Britain

Needless to say we’d love to revive the tradition of king cake in Britain - though without the human sacrifice. Why not bake a cake with a fava bean in it for January 6th? Take it to work, school or share it with friends or family… you might also want to use it to elect your own Lord of Misrule to brighten up the day! Here’s an excellent recipe for king cake from Nigel Slater. And if you do need a bean….

A King Cake; in France, Spain and other European countries where the king cake is still sold, trinkets replace beans and the cake often comes with a paper hat to crown the king. Photo courtesy of Mover el Bigote and licensed under Creative Commons

Josiah Meldrum
Josiah Meldrum


1 Response


December 16, 2015

Surely you`re taking all the fun out of Christmas by excluding the human sacrifice.
This is health and safety gorn mad!!

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