What is Epiphany day: Symbolic Meaning
The French have been celebrating Epiphany, more commonly referred to in France as (La fête des Rois) three king’s day since the fourteenth century. It marks the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi — the day when the three kings ”Three Wise Men” visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem bearing gifts exactly 12 days after his birth.
Remember that song “The 12 days of Christmas”?
The 12 days of Christmas in Christian theology begins on Christmas day (December 25) through January 6 (Epiphany, sometimes called Three Kings’ Day).
Ties to Mardi Gras:
January 6th is also the beginning of Carnival season and 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: La Galette des Rois
In the days and weeks leading up to January sixth, the shelves at food stores and French bakeries “Les Boulangeries” in France are lined with rows of “galette des Rois” (King Cake).
Galette des Rois is a flattish puff pasty which resembles a pie more than 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.
The fun part about this tradition is that there is a small figurine, called a fève which literally means bean in French hidden in each galette des Rois. (Originally an actual bean was put in the cakes, but around the 1870’s, it was replaced by porcelain figurines and more recently sometimes by plastic toys.)
In Montreal, there are still bakers that actually put beans in their king cake. I think bakers in Louisiana put a small baby, representing the Christ Child, in the cake.
The tradition is simple and quick. On the day of Epiphany, you cut slices of the cake and hand them out at a small gathering with friends, family, and co-workers.
- A paper crown is always included with the cake.
- If there are children, it is 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.
- Some people take the opportunity to open a bottle of champagne or have a glass of hot wine or cider.
Whoever finds the figurine in their slice gets to wear the paper crown that us usually sold with the king cakes.
In the south of France where we live, there is a second type of king cake called gâteau des Rois (which also means king cake) which is also known as Couronne des Rois ( which means kings crown) . This second type is similar in texture and shape to the King cake found in Louisiana.
Instead of puff pastry filled with frangipane, the cake is a brioche which is more bread or cake like. It’s also topped with candied fruit and white sugar to make it look like an actual crown with jewels.
And that is how you celebrate Epiphany in France and become King (or Queen) for a day.
You don’t need to come to France to be King for a day. You can make King cake yourself, Louisiana style.