One of the greatest parts of Mardi Gras in New Orleans has to include the delicious tradition of making a Kings Cake. For years, the King Cake Festival not only saw new and exciting versions of the traditional Kings Cake but became more popular as a dessert with several local bakeries trying to outdo each other.
How did the Kings Cake become part of Mardi Gras?
Actually, the origin of the King Cake is a lot older than Mardi gras and goes back to the middle ages deep within Europe. Deeply embraced by religious symbolism, the Kings Cake began its historic journey around the 15th century. The origin of the name itself also comes from a celebration that revolved around Christmas and the celebration of the 12th night. For those who still understand Christmas symbolism, this is the last day of the Christmas season.
As two religious events mark the celebration of the 12th Night, it has also been called Three Kings Day. The Biblical Magi as they are commonly called have commonly been know as the three kings who paid a visit to the Baby Jesus after he was born. They came bearing gifts that included Gold, frankincense, and Myrrh. This day is all part of the Epiphany otherwise known as Three Kings Day.
The introduction of the cake itself was all part of the population that celebrated Jesus Christ and the Epiphany. If you’re still rusty on Christian values, this is the revelation of understanding and acceptance of God’s incarnate aka Jesus Christ. But the celebrations went much further to symbolize the Three Kings in a way that became a symbol of the Epiphany feast. Depending on which country in Europe celebrates Epiphany, the cakes are all different.
The ingredients are all varied but the concept is still as pure as it was back in the 15th century. Inside each cake, a fava bean was hidden to represent the baby, Jesus. Over the years, this bean changed and started to include small figurines of Jesus instead. The original idea is that whoever found the bean would be gifted with luck and prosperity.
Of course, this concept changed from country to country and all had significance what finding the bean meant to the lucky (or unlucky one) who finds this prize. It was the French who started the idea that a Kings Cake needed to have a crown on it, awarding the youngest member of the family who found the fava bean to be King of Queen for a day. Interestingly enough, 68% of French citizens admit they purposely hide the fava bean for their kids to find.
It goes without saying that it’s the credit of the French people who helped colonize the Southern US including the thriving port of New Orleans. But the evolution of the King’s cake also took on attributes from other European countries that helped shape its history much further. Thanks to Germany, this cake is shaped like a wreath and hides an almond instead of the fava bean. In the UK, they took this dessert cake very seriously, and even the most famous bards of them all: Shakespeare wrote the classic Twelfth Night! They follow the French custom closely but included a fava bean on one side and one pea on the other.
This allowed for two people to become a King and Queen for the day. This tradition was finally broken when the UK decided to replace the Kings Cake with the Christmas cake during the Victorian era. But for those who live in Spain and Portugal, there was hell to pay if you happened to find the bean. This donut-shaped cake with a hole in the middle became the Portuguese symbol and orders that you buy the cake next year if you find the bean.
Spain was no better with a double whammy task for those who discovered the bean. You would either need to return the symbol of Jesus to the nearest church on Candlemass Day or throw a party for everyone that same day when they find the little figurine.
Kings Cake comes to America
Some claim that the Kings Cake was brought in by Basque settlers around 1718, but there is way too much proof in 1870 when the French had settled in after they made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Either way, the celebration of Carnival is commonly held on Fat Tuesday and a day before Ash Wednesday. The association of Epiphany also includes Easter which for many Christians and Catholics consider this day the death of Christ.
The Mardi Gras celebration can be considered many things and has been linked to Pagan celebrations throughout ancient Europe. For whatever reason, the Epiphany concept was introduced and became a traditional time for most who celebrate Fat Tuesday will include the Kings Cake as part of the rich and fatty foods associated with Lent. In other words, it was allowed to eat what you like before the fasting Lent ritual would take place.
What does the King Cake represent in America?
The French might have given this cake a rather important task in bringing a Christmas tradition to the tail end of Easter, but those who have ever experienced a King Cake at Mardi Gras will all be pleasantly surprised. This cake and the tiny figure of Jesus that can be found inside represent fortune and good health. It also provides lucky recipients to have an opportunity to buy the cake the following year.
On the flip side, they may also be responsible for throwing a Mardi Gras party the following year depending on the rules of that party group. It had been a long-standing tradition to hide the little figure inside each cake, but this has also been watered-down by American bakeries who don’t want to be slapped with liability for someone choking. If you don’t make the cake yourself, it’s common to find the baby somewhere outside the cake these days.
No matter what the latest trends do to change the shape of the King Cake or add new flavors, the original concept will never fade from those who are devoted Epiphany fans. This tradition may stick around longer than most of the Mardi Gras celebrations are allowed to survive, so we hope you’ll have a chance to experience one of these fine dessert cakes for yourself soon enough.
Baby on Board: The King Cake Tradition
As the infamous Doctor Lecter once said ‘I ate his liver with some Fava beans and a nice Chianti’… But for those who read the book, this is obviously not exactly what he was saying. Yet for all it’s worth- when was the last time you had ever heard of a Fava bean? This is where the legend of the King Cake Fava Bean comes from.
Why use a Fava Bean as a prize?
To understand why a bean was used instead of a Christ baby, you need to understand the Pagan level of thinking that was prominent in the 1300s throughout Europe at that time. It seems that Christianity and the practice of Carnival had many layers that mixed two separate events. The bean represented a magical element that had long been significant within religious beliefs and just so happened to carry over into the celebration of Epiphany.
This bean was also labeled as a ‘King’ and is the main reason that children who found this magic bean would become King for a Day, or Queen, depending on who found it first… As a tradition, this was slowly altered from the Mock-King aspect to more of a fitting and crowning notion of what the King Cake is said to represent. To this day, many versions of the King Cake will have a King’s Crown adorning the top of each cake.
This crown not only pays homage to the Three Kings who paid a visit to bring gifts to Baby Jesus after he was born, but it also signifies the Epiphany which falls in line with the Twelfth Night. But for the wackiness of Carnival, this event also gives those who are everyday people a chance to eat, drink, and be merry on the last day of Lent! After the French Revolution around 1794, this tradition soon found its way into the New World -down in Louisiana.
By this time the bean had been replaced with a small figurine that symbolized the Baby Jesus and was all part of the mystique of carnival. It’s a little hard to explain but then again, Old-World Pagan celebrations don’t need to be explained here. If you want a more scientific explanation, this historical review sums it up quite nicely.
I Got the Baby Club
The King Cake festival is no joking matter when it comes to the lucky ones who have found their little baby. In many traditional circles, getting a baby means you’ll have a big responsibility to host a party for the day or organize the next year’s cake (or party) for that matter. One club that was formed was titled ‘I Got the Baby’ was dedicated to those who received a baby figurine and could receive VIP passes for the King Cake Festival.
Of course, this was short-lived since the festival hasn’t resurfaced for many reasons but the tradition does live on in small circles throughout the French Quarter. One of the more significant parade groups called the Krewe of Isis’ is a long-standing parade society that keeps tradition by throwing baby figurines to the crowds along with other iconic parade SWAG.