When we celebrate, we eat cake.

As we reach the milestones of life — first communions, birthdays, graduations and weddings — we are often rewarded with a frosted cake bearing a congratulatory message in icing. No other dessert (though we love many of them) is so central to our U.S. culture and even to our faith.

Our celebrations after receiving sacraments often involve cake. Perhaps sharing it with family and friends is in some way linked to our sharing in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Cake has taken on added significance recently because a Colorado baker’s livelihood and freedom of speech and religion are affected by how the U.S. Supreme Court considers his refusal to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple in July 2012. The Court is scheduled to hold oral arguments Dec. 5 in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Jack Phillips, owner of the Lakewood, Colorado, bakery, declined to make the custom wedding cake for the two men (while offering them other cakes and baked goods in his store), as he also refuses to make cakes with Halloween themes, and indecent or other images he feels are contrary to his Christian faith.

Why is cake a central feature of celebrations such as weddings, sometimes elaborately designed and decorated, ceremoniously cut and frequently photographed? How has a baked dessert come to represents Phillips’ struggle to uphold his religious beliefs about marriage in his work, and in doing so, maintain his rights to free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment?

Since ancient times, birthdays and other significant life events have been celebrated with some type of cake. The custom of putting candles on cakes may have started in ancient Greece, where it was done in tribute and supplication to the moon goddess.

Because of the pagan practice, there is evidence that the early Christians did not celebrate birthdays. According to the ecclesiastical writer Origen, “of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below.”

It’s likely that the first birthday cake was made in Germany in the Middle Ages. In the 17th century France bakers began to add layers, frost and decorate cakes for the wealthy who could afford the expensive ingredients. As baking materials began to be mass produced in the 1800s, cake baking became less expensive and so, more common.

In ancient times wedding feasts might have featured honey and other sweet cakes. While there weren’t cakes specially designed for weddings in the Middle Ages, these cakes developed out of medieval feasting.

Early cake frosting was hard and shiny with decorations that were colored and molded from marzipan or other nut pastes.

Today’s specialty cakes are limited only by the creator’s imagination and skill. While artists such as Phillips still make white sheet cakes with frosting roses and piped borders, they also can replicate almost any object or create any theme in cake. In Phillips’ case, he does what his conscience allows. Only in totalitarian countries are artists forced to create artwork that goes against their beliefs and consciences.

Voices in our culture are telling Phillips to “just bake the cake.” They resemble friends of the Jewish elder, Eleazar, who told him in 2 Maccabees 6:21 to “pretend to eat the sacrificial meat” to avoid being executed by the Seleucid rulers. Neither Phillips nor Eleazar are giving in.

A pork dinner or the perfect cake may crown a celebration but when the party’s over, only Truth remains.