So where did the odd tradition of hiding a trinket in a kings’ cake come from? For that matter, what about the bit with the crown and being “king for the day?” While I’m always wary of hopping onto the well-trodden path that’s forever leading food writers back to Greece or Rome, in this case Rome is really where the story begins. For it is in Roman Saturnalia celebrations that we find the origin of the king cake rituals. Those crazy fests, which honored Saturn, god of the harvest, were held around the time of the winter solstice. They lasted for a week, and over that time all sorts of nuttiness went on. Schools and businesses closed, people exchanged gifts and wore casual clothes. Also they had orgies.
But perhaps the most interesting feature of the celebrations, aside from the orgies, was a game of social reversal that the ruling classes played with the lower orders. Over the course of the week, slaves were served meals by their masters (and played at treating them poorly), beggars entered fine houses and demanded the occupants’ finest food and paupers “ran” the city. It was all just for show, obviously, a ceremonial up-ending of the normal day-to-day order. Just a bit of fun, but also a ritual way to remind the folks in charge what their subordinates endured for the other 51 weeks of the year.
So how did these traditions find their way into Epiphany celebrations? Here it’s important to remember that the celebration of the Epiphany is one of Christianity’s oldest feast days. It was established way back in the mid-300’s A.D., when Rome was still a going concern and Saturnalia were still the rage. Given that Epiphany (and the other twelve days of Christmas) roughly coincided with Saturn-fest, how surprising is it that some of the Saturnalia traditions were incorporated into the new Christian feast days?
And of course it wasn’t just the food and high spirits. Though it probably wasn’t intended (Pope Julius I wasn’t exactly known as a party guy), some of the less desirable Saturnalia rituals were ported over along with all the gift-giving and casual dress. Indeed wild drunken revelry and (sometimes dangerous) pranking were a fixture of Christmas time for well over a thousand years after. So was the election of a so-called “Lord of Misrule”, usually a town pauper or low-life who, depending on the locale, would preside over and direct the chaos.
By the early 1600’s, stern religious reforms put a stop to all the fun. Yet try as they might to cut every last tie between Roman Saturnalia and the Christian winter feasts, at least one of them endured: the idea of temporarily, ceremonially, meting out power on an essentially random basis. And thus we have the tradition surrounding the kings’ cake, whereby a bean or other trinket endows the finder with kingly (or queenly) privileges for a day.