An innocent Easter tradition that many families enjoy actually has a dark, disturbing history.

For as long as I can remember our family has been making a special cake every year for Easter. Right on the dinner table, along with the ham, green beans and potatoes sits the traditional lamb cake.

No, it's not a cake made out of lamb meat, that would just be gross. This dessert is a regular cake (in our case, a pound cake) formed into the shape of a lamb. A special baking mold that's been passed down from generation to generation is coated with lots of butter and flour and then loaded up with cake mix. After it's baked, everyone crosses their fingers as the lamb is released from the mold. Usually missing an ear or half of its leg, the cake is glued back together with frosting and decorated for the holiday.

A. Boris
A. Boris

When I was young we always coated the lamb with shredded coconut to make it look like it had real wool (but most years it came out looking like some kind of shaggy dog instead). Now that the mold has been passed down to my family, we usually just put frosting on it and make a face with some jelly beans or chocolate chips.

One year I thought it would be fun to fill the lamb with jelly so that when people cut into it the red filling would ooze out like real blood. While everyone got a kick out of that, we were unaware that we had actually hit upon the real origin of this strange and mysterious dessert.

The lamb cake is one of those things that families do that seems normal on the surface, but if you think about it enough is just really odd. After reflecting on this peculiar tradition of making a cake that looks like a lamb (or shaggy dog), I decided to do some research into why some families make this curious dessert for Easter.

The obvious answer is that the lamb represents Jesus. Referred to as the Lamb of God in the bible, Jesus's sacrifice is celebrated on Easter.  So this makes sense, right? Well, much like everything else about Easter, it turns out that the lamb cake was actually stolen from the pagans.

To celebrate the end of winter and the rebirth of nature, pagans would conduct what they called the rite of spring. The ceremony, which was detailed in Igor Stravinsky's ballet by the same name, would culminate with a virgin being sacrificed to the gods. As civilization evolved, some thought the idea of killing a young woman was "a bit much" so they decided to replace the virgins with animals. The sacrificial lamb or goat soon became a symbol of spring.

Stag Sacrifice
Getty Images

Even later, the thought of killing animals became unappetizing to those who found the practice a bit uncivilized. So the hassle of cleaning up all of that blood and guts was eventually replaced with a pastry version of the animal. Yes, ladies and gentlemen; it turns out that the true origin of this dessert animal is that it's simply a substitute for killing a real lamb, which was a replacement for sacrificing virgins to the gods to celebrate spring.

So, when you cut into that lamb cake this year just enjoy the dessert and try not to think about its sinister history.

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