This Epiphany: Let them eat cake

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | January 6, 2017

King cakes, called by many names, remind us of both the Magi and that we are headed forward toward Mardi Gras — and Lent

Mardi Gras season has begun.

That’s right, we haven’t even finished Christmas — which lasts until Jan. 9, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord — and here we are thinking about  Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday.  Technically, the season that starts on Jan. 6, is called “carnival” and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the last day of carnival (Feb. 28 this year.)

Epiphany, sometimes called the last of the 12 days of Christmas, celebrates the adoration of the Magi. (The night of Jan. 5 is known as “Twelfth Night,” but Jan. 6 is sometimes called the same thing, if you’re counting from Christmas night, instead of Christmas Eve.)

We all know the story of the Magi, told in Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-12) and how they arrived at Bethlehem. They came bearing gifts and seeking “the newborn king of the Jews.”

Epiphany and Mardi Gras

From this tradition eventually came a food tradition associated with both Epiphany and Mardi Gras: the King Cake. The Mardi Gras King Cake is an oval, bread-like pastry. It is filled with cinnamon — a spice associated with the Magi who came from the East, perhaps along the spice routes from Asia. The cakes also can include fruit — the colors of the fruit are meant to remind us of the jewels of a crown, as does the circular shape of the cake itself. The circular shape also speaks of eternity.

King Cakes are also decorated with sugars in colors of purple, green and gold (sometimes yellow.) These are the colors of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and date to 1872. Traditionally, these colors adorn New Orleans for Mardi Gras and festoon floats in parades, most especially the Rex (King) Parade. Mardi Grad tradition says that purple represents justice, green stands for faith and gold indicates power.

However, it should be noted that when the first Mardi Gras was set by Rex (the name of the parade association) in 1872, the colors were chosen to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanov, whose royal house colors were purple, green and gold.

Baby Jesus and beans

Another feature of the King Cake is the Baby Jesus figurine hidden inside the cake itself. Thus eating the cake also becomes a search for the “newborn King of the Jews,” just as the Magi searched so long ago. The figurine is a newer variation on the French tradition — New Orleans (and all of Louisiana) began as part of the land claimed by France when European settlers first arrived in the Americas.

In France, a tradition going back at least three centuries, Epiphany has been celebrated with a special cake, or pastry, called gâteau des Rois (cake of the kings). It is also sometimes called brioche des Rois. A small bean (often a fava bean) was hidden in the cake and whoever found that bean became “the king of the feast.” The king received control over how the celebration went that day. The king also got the responsibility of arranging for the next year’s cake — a tradition that continues today with King Cakes.

The French gâteau tradition may have roots in the English tradition from the Tudor period (15th century), when Twelfth Cakes or Twelfth-tide Cakes were served. These contained both a bean and a pea — the bean for the king of the feast and the pea for the queen. These feasts could become quite boisterous and even ribald. In this way, they were reminiscent of the Roman December feast of Saturnaliam when a King of Fools was chosen to rule over the Feast of Fools. The one chosen was a servant, sometimes even a slave, and everyone had to do whatever the King of Fools said, something like the childhood game of “Simon Says.”

In Spain, Latin America and Mexico, the Epiphany cake is called rosca de Reyes (the Kings’ Ring), which is similar in shape to a King Cake and also meant to symbolize a crown. Candied and dried fruit adorn it to remind us of jewels. Hidden inside the cake is also a baby figurine, as with a King Cake.

End of Christmas

Whoever finds the baby is responsible for hosting a party on Candlemas Day (Feb. 2). Feb. 2 is also the feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple, and at one time this feast marked the traditional end of the church’s Christmas season.

In parts of Spain and Mexico, the Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day) on Jan. 6 is celebrated with parades in which the Three Kings figure prominently. The night before Dia de los Reyes, many children put out shoe boxes filled with grass or hay. This treat is for the camels (or horses) of the Three Kings, who also leave gifts for children. In this way, the tradition of gifts for the Infant Jesus continues.

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Kasten is the author of several books, including her latest, “Journeys with the Magi. From Persia to Bethlehem… and Beyond” (Amor Deus Publishing at

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