La Fête des Rois, Feast of the Kings

Galette des Rois

Galette des Rois

Today is the feast of the Epiphanie (literally “revelation”) celebrating the travels of the three Magi, or Kings of the Orient, who followed a star to Bethlehem to visit Jesus a few days after the Nativity.

French Christmas celebrations conclude with the Epiphanie, and with the consumption of vast quantities of galettes des Rois, like the one to the left. They are made of puff pastry filled with marzipan. Each galette is sold with a gilded or silver cardboard crown and contains a fève (“fava bean.”) The fève is no longer a dry bean, but now consists in some decorative charm. My favorites are miniature Nativity scene figures. One must, of course, chew carefully not to break a tooth on the fève

When the galette is split between family members or friends, the person who draws the slice containing the fève becomes King or Queen, dons the cardboard crown and chooses a consort among the company. I must report that people cheat upon this occasion. For one thing, the galettes des rois are so delicious that they are eaten weeks before and after the actual celebration of the Epiphanie. Also, when the company comprises little ones, the person cutting the galette des Rois will always slyly try to locate the fève through the crust to give the winning slice to one of the children. I won’t name any names, but I know of a certain boy who was so delighted with his royal rank that he would keep the crown firmly planted on his head for the rest of the day and even refuse to take it off to go to bed.

This custom can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and may be older. Even the French Revolution could not defeat the popular affection for this festivity. To illustrate this post, a painting by Greuze, depicting a family of peasants partaking of a galette des Rois .

Greuze Gateau des Rois

Greuze epiphany Gateau des Rois

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7 Comments to “La Fête des Rois, Feast of the Kings”

  1. Jen says:

    Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I was thinking along those lines but wasn’t sure if there was some symbolic meaning that I was missing.

  2. Thanks, Jen! I assume the fava bean was picked because it was small, inexpensive, and remained hard once baked.

  3. Jen says:

    Interesting post as always. Do you know why the fava bean was originally used as the token of becoming king/queen? Was it just because it was small?

  4. LoveHistory says:

    Kind of a nice tradition. One of these days I’m going to have to try marzipan.

  5. Matterhorn says:

    I’ve read that the little Duc de Bordeaux, the grandson of Charles X, got the “fève” at the last Epiphany before the July Revolution of 1830, and that he picked Marie-Amélie, the Duchesse d’Orléans, as his Queen for the day. Dramatic irony, as she would become queen only a few months later, at his expense.

  6. I hope you win the crown this year, Catherine, with all the good fortune that comes with it! :)
    Is the galette des Rois similar to a pithivier? They sound as if they’d be at least culinary cousins.

  7. andrew1860 says:

    This is my favorite kind of king cake to eat.

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