So, while everyone is dieting and crowding up the gyms per their new years resolutions, the French have this cool tradition called the galette des rois, or kings cake. It’s typically eaten on January 6th for Epiphany. Everyone knows the song The Twelve Days of Christmas? (even my students can be heard humming it, but that may be my fault…) Well, those days traditionally extend from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, not from the 12th of December to the 24th as many people commonly celebrate in the US. In fact, the idea of Epiphany has been largely lost in American culture, which is funny because my students have frequently cited the stereotype that “all Americans are Christian but not practicing.” We’ll leave religious beliefs out of this, but for those of you who need a refresher, Epiphany season extends from the 6th of January to Mardi Gras, the beginning of Lent.
In France and in many participating countries, you may eat a kings cake at any point during the Epiphany season, allowing for a lot of cake! The tradition has, however, also lost most of its religious connotation in France. Today, it’s more of a game: each cake contains a little porcelain figure called the fève (it used to be a bean, and historically represents baby Jesus), and the person whose slice contains the fève gets to be king for the day and wear the paper crown that is sold with the cake at the patisserie. Some say that this tradition of crowning the king comes from pagan Celtic or Roman celebrations in which a peasant became king for the day, “the lord of misrule,” as he is called in English Tudor tradition.
The kings cake and Epiphany are also subjects of literary interest. Victor Hugo pays homage to the galette des rois in the Fête des fous (miscreants’ party) in Notre dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written as entertainment for the twelfth night celebrations of January 5th. In the play, the characters reverse their roles, Viola dressing as a man and the servant Malvolio imagining himself as king. Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visit a Twelfth Night Party in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Clearly, the celebration of the kings cake is one rooted in long-standing tradition across multiple cultures. If you happen to know of any Spanish or Latin American literature that cites the Roscón des reyes, I would love to get some more reading into my days.
Last week, the English teachers at my school got together to celebrate the galette des rois (we’re also having a school-wide teachers’ celebration today—clearly it’s a big deal!) Some of the teachers brought their children and I brought my collocatrice (flat-mate). There were three cakes among us, and luckily no one made me go under the table and dictate to whom each slice went (me being the youngest at the adults’ table, and the naming-of-the-slices-from-under-the-table-by-the-youngest being French tradition), mostly because I couldn’t remember everyone’s name. Of course, I ended up with one of the fèves (which were creepy little boy figurines either sporting mustaches or giant frowns—we couldn’t decide) and wearing a crown all evening, so I pressured my fellow queen to wear hers, too. One of the children was crowned king, but was too interested in the puppy to wear his crown. It was a nice celebration, lacking completely in history, as no one present could remember the full story of the galette’s origins. That’s my kind of party: just pure drinks and cake for the sake of it!
For a more detailed description of the kings cake by country—and there are many variations: Portuguese, Spanish, Latin American, Swiss, Belgian, French, French-Louisianan, Quebecois—check out the information on the Wikepedia page.
If you want to learn some French and more about the specific French traditions, check out this video from Comme une Française, the French language teacher Geraldine.