Why do French kids love crawling under the kitchen table on the first Sunday of January each year?
It’s thanks to the tradition of the Galette des rois or king’s cake. Related to the festival of Epiphany day, which comes close on the heels of Christmas, in fulfilling this tradition,
Let me give you a bit of history about this delicious tradition: the Epiphany (Greek for “manifestation” or “appearance”) is a Christian day celebrating the revelation of God incarnating as Jesus Christ. Three wise men, also called magi or kings, travelled for 12 days before reaching Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, to bring him presents. The epiphany was therefore celebrated 12 days after Christmas. For convenience, the French celebrate it on the first Sunday of the year so that the whole family can be present.
While it might seem obvious that it is a Christian celebration today, it’s worth noting that it has pagan origins. It was during the Saturnalia, a festival held under the Roman empire, that there began a tradition of organising a day where masters and slaves would all eat at the same table. At this meal, a “king” was elected to give guests activities to do.
During the Middle Ages, popular culture makes it known that a game called “the King drinks” was played by people celebrating this day and during which a person was made “king” if they found a bean in a cake. The ‘king’ then had to pay for a round of drinks for everyone.
Finally, two very important symbols make this celebration a very ancient one: the round shape of the cake represents the sun at a period where days are slowly getting longer (Winter solstice), and the bean itself, which is the first vegetable to grow again after the winter days, represents fertility.Two very important symbols that make this celebration a very ancient one are - the round shape of the cake and the bean itself. Click To Tweet
How this day is celebrated today
French people love to stretch the celebration of the Galette des rois. So, very often, you won’t just have the one cake on the first Sunday of January, but are more likely to eat quite a few slices over the first few weeks of the year. Colleagues, friends, and family all gather to share the cake – a golden crust filled with frangipane (a filling made with almonds, sugar and butter) – either at the end of a meal or during tea time; and everybody hopes to get the fève (the bean).
While originally, la fève was literally a bean, it was replaced at the end of the 19th century by a variety of porcelain figurines. Individual bakeries or supermarkets often prepare a specialized line of fèves from one year to the other depicting diverse themes from great works of art to classic movie stars to popular cartoon characters. These figurines are very popular collectibles and some people love to try and get many from the same “edition” as possible.
[easy-image-collage id=6335] These figurines are very popular collectibles and some people love to try and get many from the same 'edition' as possible. Click To Tweet
As everybody wants to be “the king”, a system has been put into place to avoid cheating: the youngest person in the room – often a kid- will crawl under the table, and while the person cutting the cake points at a given slice, the kid will decide to whom that specific slice should go to. The reason everybody is so excited to become the king is twofold: not only will this person get a crown and chose a king or queen to share the excitement with, but each family has a tradition of attributing “powers” to the king: they usually get exempted from chores on that day, or can make a wish which needs to be granted.
A tradition I find beautiful, and which is sometimes still carried out in some families, is dividing the cake into as many shares as there are guests, plus one. The last slice, called “the share of God,” “share of the Virgin Mary,” or “share of the poor”, is intended for the first poor person, or unexpected guest, to arrive at the home…a nice continuation of the spirit of Christmas.The last slice is called 'the share of God,' 'share of the Virgin Mary,' or 'share of the poor'. Click To Tweet
What galette des rois means to me
As an expat, you very quickly realise that traditions you take for granted are actually totally unknown to other cultures. I am French and live in Brussels, Belgium, the capital of Europe, and the city draws a very international crowd. Belgian and French cultures being very close, the Belgians also have the tradition of the Galette des rois (or driekoningentaart in Flemish). But I found out a few years ago that most of my international friends were absolutely unfamiliar with this celebration and so I decided to do something about it.
I started organising a party around the Epiphany to help my international friends discover this delicious tradition. I think that celebrating the Epihany with my friends is the perfect way to start the year. Everybody has stories to tell from their Christmases at home, and people are happy to raise a glass (I recommend drinking cider or champagne with the galette) to start the new year. As our friends’ circle now includes more and more kids, this tradition is moving on to be an afternoon tea with galette, a format that also perfectly works to create a cosy atmosphere of sharing.
On that day, in addition to buying a couple of traditional galettes at a bakery, I usually bake a few myself using my mom’s recipe. This recipe is an “enriched” version of the simple galette : the frangipane is not only made of almonds but actually includes a mix of grilled and caramelised nuts (“brésilienne”). I find it quite funny to see that most of my expat friends, those previously unfamiliar with the galette – usually prefer this one. My French and Belgian friends, on the other hand, find that while it’s good, it’s “not really a galette”, as I believe they are looking for the taste and smells or their childhood.Just like Christmas, the galette des rois brings out the kid in you. Click To Tweet
Just like Christmas, the galette des rois brings out the kid in you… it’s therefore not surprising to see how happy we all are to get a crown to put on our heads and chose a king or queen with whom to share our happiness (and cake)!