On January 6th, people across France celebrate Epiphany day by eating “une galette des Rois” King cake. But what exactly is this day and how is it celebrated?
What is Epiphany day: Symbolic Meaning
Christians have been celebrating Epiphany since the fourteenth century but the French celebrate it with a flair all their own.
Remember that song “The 12 days of Christmas”?
L’Épiphanie sometimes referred to as “La fête des Rois” three king’s day or “le Jour des Rois” Kings day, is celebrated on January 6th, exactly 12 days after December 25th.
This religious celebration marks the time when the three wise men or Magi “Les Trois Mages” visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem bearing gifts and to worship Jesus after they saw a star in the East which they recognized as a sign that a king was born— a messiah and God. It’s also the day when John the Baptist baptized baby Jesus in the River Jordan
You might be interested in reading about Chandeleur in France aka (National Crepe Day) which falls exactly 40 days after Christmas
Ties to Mardi Gras:
January 6th (Epiphany) is also the beginning of Carnival season which ends the day after Mardi Gras (FAT TUESDAY) on Ash Wednesday. Think of Mardi Gras as the last hurrah before Lent begins.
You might be interested in reading about 15 Fabulous French New Year’s Eve and New Years Day Traditions
How To Celebrate Epiphany in France and eat King cake.
Although the official day to celebrate Epiphany and eat king cake is January 6th, in France, people begin to eat King Cake on the first Sunday of January after the 1st.
In the days and in some cases, weeks leading up to Epiphany, the shelves at French boulangerie, pâtisserie, and super marché in France are lined with rows of “galette des Rois” (King Cake).
Eat King Cake
A King cake is called a “Galette des Rois” in France. It’s a flattish puff pasty that resembles a pie or big pastry more than a cake and is usually filled with frangipane, a cream made from sweet almonds, butter, eggs, and sugar but it can also contain other ingredients like apple puré.
In the south of France where we live, there is a second type of king cake called “gâteau des Rois” or “Couronne des Rois” ( kings crown). It’s more like a brioche which is more bread or cake-like. It can be topped with candied fruit and white sugar to make it look like an actual crown with jewels.
This brioche-like king cake is similar in texture and shape to the King cake found in Louisiana.
The galettes des roi (King cake) tradition is simple and quick.
You can eat king cake at small gatherings with friends, family, co-workers or all three. Some people take the opportunity to open a bottle of champagne or have a glass of hot wine or cider.
First, someone is designated to cut slices of the king cake:
Hidden in each king cake is a small figurine, called a fève (bean) which is baked right into the king cake. (Originally an actual bean was put in king cakes. Around the 1870s, it was replaced by porcelain figurines and more recently sometimes by plastic toys.)
The person who gets the slice of king cake containing the fève, gets to wear the paper crown which is always included with a King cake purchased at grocery stores and French bakeries in France.
If there are small Children:
If there are children, it’s a tradition that the youngest child hides under the table and randomly announces who gets the next slice. This is the part that the kids love the most. It’s also a way to ensure that the slices are handed out randomly.
You can usually eat king cake and celebrate throughout the month of January.
It’s not unusual to partake in a slice several times throughout January at different social gatherings.
Even the President joins in.
Every year a lucky French baker is chosen to make a gigantic galette des Rois which can serve as much as 150 people at the Elysée Palace (the equivalent to the White House). It’s the only King cake in France that must NOT have a secret fève inside in remembrance of the French revolution.
The Head of State cannot be President of the Republic … and be elected King! This is contrary to the ideas of the French Republic.
You don’t need to come to France to be King for a day. You can make King cake yourself, Louisiana style. Don’t forget the fève.