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Un peu plus sur la Fête des Rois

A little more about the Fête des Rois

 

La Fête Des Rois

There is a special tradition in France that is celebrated the 1st Sunday of each New Year. The celebration is "La Fête des Rois" (Three Kings Day) and includes a king, a queen and a special cake. Each year, pastry shops throughout France are teeming with the unique and tasty galette des rois, a flat pastry about the size of a pizza while French children eagerly await the ceremony that accompanies the galette.

Origin of the Fête des Rois

The French celebration of "La Fête des Rois" is a merging of two ancient traditions. The Roman pagan celebration, "Les Saturnales" and the Christian celebration of Epiphany, is the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem.

During antiquity times (B.C.), the Romans celebrated "Les Saturnales", a week long festival which took place from December 17th to December 24th. The Romans went all out to celebrate this event and enjoyed huge feasts with a great deal of wine, games and other types of debauchery. Though the Roman celebrations are known for great excess, "Les Saturnales" also represented a wish for prosperity, health and peace for all citizens. During the celebration, the Romans would reverse traditional roles - masters would serve the slaves and they would eat together at the same table. The Romans also gave small gifts to friends and family during the celebration. Oftentimes, the present would be a small cake, which contained a small bean (la féve). The person who found the féve in their slice of cake would be crowned king of the feast.

The Christian tradition of Epiphany has developed over time. The word epiphany comes from the Greek word "epiphaneia" which means apparition or manifestation. Initially, Christian tradition relayed the voyage of the three wise men to the birthplace of Jesus. It was the apostle, Saint Matthew, who named the three wise men, Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar (known as Gaspard in French). In the 5th century, the identity of the three wise men was further explained and each wise man became a king. Caspar was the king of Arabia, Melchior was the king of Persia and Balthazar was the king of India. These three kings represented non-Christian faiths and symbolized that Jesus was placed on the earth for people of all faiths. In 1801, the French Concordat was signed between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII re-establishing the Catholic Church in France. As part of the Concordat, the date for Epiphany was set on January 6th. The twelve days that are between Christmas Day and Epiphany represent each month of the year. These twelve days are celebrated in song, most notably, the song "Twelve Days of Christmas".

Many European countries celebrate Three Kings Day. In Spain, toys are given to children on this day to symbolize the gifts that the three wise kings gave to Jesus. In Italy, presents are often given on Epiphany as well as on Christmas.

In France, families celebrate "La Fête des Rois" with a delicious cake and the crowning of a king and queen. The French have combined the cake tradition from the Romans and the arrival of the three wise kings in Bethlehem to create a tradition of their own.

How the French Celebrate Today

There are three important elements to the French tradition of La Fête des Rois; the galette des rois, the féve (a small object that is placed in the galette des rois) and the crowning of the king and queen.

Galette des Rois

The galette des rois is a cake made from puff pastry with frangipan stuffing. Frangipan is an almond paste used in many desserts. Some regions such as the south of France, do not use the frangipan stuffing, instead, their galette is simply a brioche. The brioche is often served with candied fruit and sprinkled with sugar.

Galettes des rois are available from the local patisserie or grocery store, however, many French people still bake the cake at home. When you purchase a galette des rois at a local pastry shop, it will come with two crowns for the king and queen of the day. You can also purchase la féve from the pastry shop.

La Féve

The féve has been greatly transformed from the initial bean used by the Romans. The word féve refers to a type of bean, but it is also the word for the object placed in the galette des rois, which was originally a bean . In the French tradition, the féve was a small porcelain piece, often in the shape of a person, that would be placed discreetly in the cake. The first porcelain féves were made in Germany in the 1870's. The traditional theme was to recreate the nativity scene characters such as baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. As féves became popular, many different shapes and types were produced. Since the 1890's the themes have greatly expanded to include collections of féves in the shape of lucky charms (four-leaf clover, horse shoe, etc.) or household objects. Some of these collections are made from a variety of materials such as gold, stainless steel and plastic. Historically, the main manufacturer of féves was Limoges-Castel which produced over six million féves each year.

Although Limoges-Castel no longer makes féves, the féve tradition has become very commercialized in France. Many companies create féves as a means of advertising their products. You can now purchase féves in the shape of Disney characters and other famous animated characters. The French television station TF1 even sponsored a contest in the 1980's which awarded a new car to the collector of five TF1 féves.

The Musée de Blain in the Loire Valley has the largest collection of féves in the world. Collectors of féves are known as fabophiles and many attend the special marché des féves organized each March in Blain. There are many guide books for collectors of féves that list the going price for antique pieces. You can even start your own collection by purchasing féves on E-bay.

Crowning of the King and Queen

The féve is discreetly placed in the galette des rois prior to serving it. The cake is then cut so that there is a piece for everyone who is present as well as a spare piece called la part des pauvres. This extra slice is cut as a symbol for loved ones who are no longer with us and for those who are less fortunate. Nowadays, the slice is also designated for the unexpected visitor and is saved for a later treat.

Traditionally, the youngest family member would slide underneath the table and designate how the slices would be distributed. This prevents cheating since the baker of the cake does not choose how the slices are handed out. After each family member was served, the cake would be eaten and the person who discovered the féve was king for the day and selected his queen. Many families now place two féves in the cake, one for the king and one for the queen to avoid family disputes. The designated king and queen wear gold paper crowns.

La Fête des Rois is a wonderful ending to the Christmas season. Many French schools celebrate this holiday by serving the galette to students and creating crowns to wear. There are also many French songs that celebrate la fête des Rois, to find a listing of these songs go to http://www.momes.net/dictionnaire/e/epiphanie/textes.html



Vocabulary

Nouns
La féve
Le fabophile
La pâte (dough)
La part (slice)
 

 

Verbs
déguster (to taste)
collectionner (to collect)
étaler (to roll)
couper (to cut)
 

Adjectives/Adverbs
poudreux (powdery)
précieux (precious)
feuilleté(e) (flaky)
fourré(e) (stuffed)
 

 

Proverbs
Un temps clair pour le jour des Rois
Nous annonce un regain de froid