Feb 07

What’s this? Christmas in February!

Mardi Gras, Carnival, the King’s Cake, and a not so brief history.

One of the many reasons that we enjoy taking people hiking in Europe is that our experiences overseas offer an opportunity for many of us to reconnect with the stories and traditions of our past. Even if your lineage skips Europe and stretches back to Asia, Africa or other locations around the world, you’ve probably been touched by western European traditions and folklore in some way or another at some point in your life. Regardless of your history or religion, it’s fun to know where other people come from, and the traditions that helped shape their worlds. One of those traditions is Mardi Gras and its sweet little delicacy called the King’s Cake, or the Galette des Rois, as it’s known in French.

The short story of Mardi Gras is this:

In mid February, long before Europeans set foot in the New World, the ancient Romans celebrated a pagan ritual called Lupercalia, a circus-like festival much like the Mardi Gras festival that we know today. Purification was the goal of the festival, and the word February actually takes it root from the purification ritual februa. When Rome embraced Christianity, the early Church fathers decided it was better to incorporate certain aspects of pagan rituals into their new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether. Carnival became a period of celebration that preceded the penance of Lent, thus giving a Christian interpretation to the ancient custom.

Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 when the French explorer Pierre le Moyne Iberville launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. Mardi Gras had already been celebrated in Paris since the middle ages, where it was a major holiday. Iberville set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France so in honor of the important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras.

Today, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is not just a single day of celebration, as many people believe it to be. Rather, it’s an entire period of parties, abandon and merriment that precedes the upcoming fasting and penance of Lent. A wonderful example of this is Quebec’s Winter Carnival, which some believe to be the largest winter carnival held anywhere in the world. This year’s carnival runs February 1-17, 2008 and coincides with Quebec City’s 400th anniversary. You can read as much as you like by clicking here.

My family never really celebrated Mardi Gras, so the first time I ever tasted the King’s Cake was actually while living in France. I was so fascinated by the tradition that I started delving into the history books. What follows is the rather lengthy, but fun history of the King’s Cake and it’s connection to Mardi Gras.

The tradition of the King’s Cake actually goes back to the Christmas season. It has grown in popularity along with Christmas carols, Christmas Trees and Christmas lights. While most people simply look at decorations, the King’s Cake is meant to be shared with friends and family on or after “Little Christmas,” an expression used for the feast of the Epiphany, observed for centuries on January 6.

In the middle ages, popular devotion during Christmas tide turned to the Magi, also known as the Wise Men or Kings who had followed a star and paid homage to the little infant in the crib. By the twelfth century, veneration of the Magi or kings themselves spread all over Europe. In time, Epiphany, from a Greek word meaning manifestation of Christ, in most countries became the feast of the Three Holy Kings.

The Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, do not mention the number of the Magi. In the western church, a slowly spreading legend put their number at three. Perhaps this limitation was based on the three gifts mentioned in the gospels, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Another reason may have been the early concept that the Magi represented all humanity in its three main races.

All through the middle ages Epiphany was the final day of the Christmas celebration. It came to be known as Twelfth Night. Pageants included men riding horseback representing the Three Kings, crowned and richly clad, bearing cups filled with myrrh, incense, and the precious metal gold. They rode through the streets of a city to the main church or cathedral, where they offered their gifts at the Christmas Crib.

In Spanish, Italian and other Mediterranean countries, January 6 is the day for giving presents to children. In Rome, the Lady Befana (derived from word meaning Epiphany) arrives on a broomstick and distributes gifts among the little ones. She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She often smiles and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both. In the little French town of Besancon, where I lived, statues of these little witches hang from wires, lampposts and chimneys all over town. In Spain and South America, the Three Wise Men place small presents in children’s shoes during the night of January 6.

Connected with all these customs is the King’s Cake, a tradition of Mardi Gras in the U.S. Baked on the eve of January 6, it is prepared in honor of the Magi. For a long time it was eaten on the afternoon of the Epiphany in connection with either the main meal or a party for family, friends and neighbors.

The key feature of the King’s Cake the placement of a “fève” – a small china figurine – in the dough before baking. The lucky guest who gets the fève is crowned king and chooses his queen among the other guests. This takes place all over France in every family, between friends and work colleagues. The children absolutely love the game. Some people also place a coin in the dough and in recent times the cake sometimes has in it both a bean and a pea, making the respective finders “king and queen” of the party. It is not unusual for bakers to put a plastic infant inside the cake as well.

In medieval France, the coin finder was expected to make a donation to a worthy cause, usually the education of a youngster who otherwise might have been deprived of schooling.

What does any of this have to do with Mardi Gras?

In the New Orleans area, the King’s Cake is prepared and eaten during the Epiphany season, which according to the liturgy of former times, extended from January 6 to the third Sunday before Mardi Gras, or more accordingly, Ash Wednesday. Nowadays, with the season of the Epiphany no longer observed, (although the feast is still prominent on the church calendar), King’s Cakes are nevertheless prepared and consumed all the way to Mardi Gras. We received a King’s Cake in the mail yesterday and the little porcelain figurine inside is considered a collector’s item.

Who knew that Mardi Gras was nothing else but a throwback to the Epiphany pageantry of the medieval times, besides being a last fling before the penitential season of Lent?

Did you miss out on Fat Tuesday? Never fear, you still have time to celebrate, and the King’s Cake is an appetizing way to have fun during this month of Carnival.

Top photo from pbase.com others copyright Ryder-Walker

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