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King Cake, filled with frangipani
There are two types of King Cake in France. In the north, it is a round, flat and golden cake made with flaky pastry and filled with frangipani, symbolising the return of the sun after winter. © Photocuisine
Provence King Cake, with crystallised fruit
There are two types of King Cake in France. In the south, in Provence and the south-west, it is a cake or a brioche in the shape of a crown filled with crystallised fruit. © Fotolia.com
A solemnity of all Christian churches traditionally fixed on 6 January or the Sunday between 2 and 8 January, Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, "manifestation", celebrates the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Magi who came to Bethlehem from the East to adore him. Since the 19th century, it has also been called the Day of Kings, and charms and kings cakes have become the symbol of the offering of the Wise Men.
The Three Wise Men
The service for the celebration speaks of the three mysteries of this day as though they were all one: the Adoration of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at Cana (when water was turned into wine). However, “Three Kings Day” and King Cake currently hold nearly all of the attention. According to a tradition from the 7th century, the Magi spoken of in the Gospel were indeed kings: the Three Wise Men called Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. The number 3 is very symbolic: first, it symbolises the three continents, (Asia, Africa and Europe), then, the three sons of Noah (Ham, Shem and Japheth), and finally, the three gifts mentioned in the Gospel (gold, frankincense and myrrh).
King Cake: tradition in France
On Three King's Day, tradition dictates that a cake with a charm (originally a bean) hidden in it is shared with others. There are two types of King Cake in France. In the north, it is a round, flat and golden cake made with flaky pastry and filled with frangipani, symbolising the return of the sun after winter. In the south, in Provence and the south-west, it is a cake or a brioche in the shape of a crown filled with crystallised fruit.
An evolving custom
The tradition of the King Cake has existed in France since the 14th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were plenty of campaigns against this custom that was deemed to be pagan. From the 17th century to the second decade of the 1900s, bakers were in the habit of offering a King Cake to their customers. It is now sold in every bakery and can sometimes be found as early mid-December and as late as the end of January.