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We’re now a week into 2018, and that means this past weekend was the official mark to the end of the 2017 holiday season. The Eastern Orthodox in Russia celebrated Christmas on January 7th, and the day before, the French partook in one of my favorite holidays: La fête des rois (Kings Day).
January 6th is Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrating both the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ and the visit of the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus. The story goes that three distinguished men followed the brightest start in the sky to be led to Jesus’s manger in the stable à Bethléem (in Bethleham). There, the men presented the Christ Child with 3 gifts associated with wealth: or (gold), encens (frankincense) et myrrhe (myrrh).
This holiday has 2 origins: Christian, as we’ve just read, and Roman. The ancient Romans celebrated les Saturnales (Saturnalia), a holiday honoring the god Saturn. Les Saturnales were a way to celebrate giving, and masters would even serve their servants a cake with a small hidden bean baked inside. According to tradition, whoever ended up with the bean in their slice would be named king of the feast.
The French have combined the two into one: celebrate the arrival of the Magi by serving a Roman cake. This cake, called la galette des rois, varies depending where you are in France. In the northern parts of the country, the cake is a puff pastry filled with an almond paste. In the south, the cake is more of a round brioche.
Just before being popped in the oven, une fève (a bean) is carefully placed into the cake. Over the years, the actual object inside has changed. It’s not often you’ll find a bean in the cake – une fève symbolizes money and by extension wealth so it made sense to place it at the time, but today you’re much more likely to find a small porcelain figurine of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, or a king of queen.
The lucky person who finds the figurine is nominated king or queen of the night and gets to place la couronne en papier (the paper crown) on their head. Don’t worry – when you buy la gallette from the bakery or grocery store, a crown is included.
The king or queen places on the crown, and the loyal subjects shout Vive or roi ! or Vive la reine ! (Long live the king/queen)
What’s so special about being king or queen of the night? Well, for many people, it means you have the honor or making or purchasing the galette des rois for the next year. Heavy is the head that wears the crown…