A celebration of Christ being visited by the Magi, the epiphany
was set to January the 6th by Pope Julius II. Also known as le
jour des Rois, this is the day when the three kings are traditionally
added next to the crib. Over the years, this religious festival
overlapped with pagan traditions that went back to the Roman Saturnalia.
From the Middle Ages, the epiphany has been celebrated with
a special Twelfth Night cake: la galette des rois, literally the
King's cake. The galette differed according to the regions: for
example it was made of puff pastry in Paris, but made of brioche
and shaped as a crown in Provence. Under Louis XIV, the Church
considered this festival as a pagan celebration and as an excuse
for indulgence, and it was subsequently banned. To get around
this ban, it became la fête du bon voisinage (literally,
'neighbourly relations day'). This culinary tradition even survived
the French Revolution when it became the ‘Gâteau de
l’Êgalité (the equality cake), as Kings were
not very popular in those years!
The cake contains a lucky charm (une fève) which originally
was a bean, a symbol of fertility. Whoever found the charm in
their slice of cake, became King or Queen and had to buy a round
of drinks for all their companions. This sometimes resulted in
stingy behaviour and to avoid buying a round of drinks, the potential
King or Queen very often swallowed the bean! This is why towards
the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the
lucky charm started being made of china. The charm can take any
shape or form and can either be very plain or more sophisticated
(glazed or handpainted). It sometimes represents a religious figure
such as the baby Jesus, but it can be virtually anything. Little
horseshoe shapes are popular as they are thought to bring luck.
Although nowadays very often made of plastic, old-fashioned china
charms are still used and they have become a collectable item.
The modern Galette des Rois is made of puff pastry and can be
plain or filled with frangipane, an almond-flavoured paste. It
is sold in all French bakeries and eating the galetteat the beginning
of January is still a very popular tradition and an opportunity
for families and friends to gather around the table. The youngest
person in the room (usually a child) hides under the table and
shouts out which guest each slice of cake should be given to.
The person who finds the fève in their slice of galette
becomes the King or Queen and is given a golden paper crown. The
King or Queen then has to choose his Queen or her King, by dropping
the lucky charm in their glass.
(Taken from Ask