Did the Tradition of Throwing Confetti Start with Sacrificial Rituals?

For centuries we've celebrated events by throwing stuff at each other: leaves, flowers, candy, rice and colorful strips of paper. But how did this tradition start? A fascinating article on the history of confetti reveals how this act of revelry might have had violent beginnings.

D. Graham Burnett, a historian of science at Princeton University, writing in the journal CABINET, looks at the earliest form of confetti, which was known as phyllobolia—the ancient Greek custom of throwing branches, garlands, fruit and other types of plants. The tradition was reserved for three very different types of events: public ceremonies of honor, funerals and weddings.

"Classicists, folklorists, and anthropologists have sparred over the origin and meaning of phyllobolia," Burnett notes. Some say it was a form of gift giving. You couldn't make your way through the crowd to personally bestow your leafy crown, so it was more practical to toss symbolic tokens of honor. At weddings and funerals, it might have been an expression of being left behind—as people close to us began new lives or ended them. The handfuls thrown at such events could have been a wistful way of saying,"I can't reach you, but I am trying…"

Then again, the custom might have originally had a darker meaning:

An alternative account….is associated with the great German scholar of archaic cults, Walter Burkert, and his masterwork Homo Necans (i.e., "Man the Killer"). Reconstructing the ritual choreography of primitive sacrifice, Burkert drew attention to the widespread gesture of throwing plant material (often seeds or kernels of grain) on a victim—lamb, calf, bird, luckless captive—just before the knife fell. A gift? Perhaps not. Rather, Burkert saw sublated violence, much closer to the warm-up for a stoning: "The act of throwing together as a group is an aggressive gesture, like beginning a fight, even if the most harmless projectiles are chosen." Why, in his view, had such ambivalent stuff-sprinkling rites arisen among so many primitive tribes? Because group killing—both warfare and hunting—was the sine qua non of survival, and Burkert thought it took some doing to goad Homo sapiens to the pitch necessary for such work.....Throwing together was thus a good place to start the requisite crescendo of collective aggression that constellated human communities, guaranteed their continuity, and permitted some of them (and not others) to leave the marks called history.

In the 1980s, professional athletes in the United States initiated a charivari tradition of "coach dunking" (a.k.a. "the Gatorade Shower")….Watching the tape of exuberant defensive tackle Jim Burt drenching Bill Parcells at the two-minute warning of the New York Giants' 37–13 win over the Washington Redskins in late October of 1984 (arguably the origin of the modern practice), it is difficult not to think of the other key aspect of sacrificial ritual upon which Burkert expended his interpretive energies: namely, the sudden shower of water visited on the head of a beast about to be slain for the gods. The reflexive recoil occasioned by this splash—the glimpse up (to see what's coming), and then the ducking down (to avert the face and eyes)—signified richly in Burkert's account: "The animal's movement here is taken to signify a 'willing nod,' a 'yes' to the sacrificial act," he explained, an assertion he buttressed with citations to Aristophanes, Plutarch, and similarly significant classical sources. Sometimes, it turns out, flinching is a kind of assent.

You can read more of Burnett's article—which also discusses how we made the transition to tossing scraps of paper—at CABINET.