A Feast of Fools and the Kings’ Cake

“Feast of Fools“ denominates the ancient tradition of choosing a king or queen for the day who plays a ceremonial or simply festive role for that day. The person in question is usually chosen by placing a bean or a token into a dish, often a cake. This always takes place in the days around winter solstice or in the two weeks thereafter. Its origins may lie in the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival and its Saturnalicius princeps (“Ruler of the Saturnalia“), a kind of Lord of Misrule. 

During the Middle Ages, it was common practice in many countries to select a Lord of Misrule to head the Feast of Fools during Christmastide (the time between Christmas and Epiphany). While frowned upon by some authorities, in parts of France and England these events were in fact organized by the clergy who would elect a mock abbot, bishop or even pope, often a child. 

The tradition survived in several European countries on Epiphany, January 6th, a.k.a Three Kings’ Day: most prominently as galette des rois (“kings’ cake“) in France, where they are sold together with golden paper crowns, but also in Spain, Portugal, Latin America and New Orleans. In Greece it is more of a New-Year’s custom, whereas in Southeastern Europe similar cakes with tokens are eaten at different times of the season. 

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