Depending on when you consider the First Day of Christmas to be (i.e. either Christmas Day itself, or the day after), Twelfth Night, at the end of the Twelfth Day, falls either on the 5th of 6th of January. This is when you can eat your galette des rois.
Let’s just quickly consider the two versions. Most people today reckon that the festive period starts on Christmas Day, but plenty of others still hold to the medieval approach which would have regarded Christmas Day as a holy day, and so there’d have been absolutely no partying then. The fun part of Christmas started the next day. There’s also an in-between approach, since some traditions consider that a day starts at sundown. Thus the First Day of Christmas would have started at sunset on Christmas Day, and thus the Twelve Days run until sunset on the 6th January.
The Twelve Days themselves date back to the Council of Tours in 567 AD. This proclaimed that this entire period between Christmas and Epiphany was considered part of the Christmas celebrations: Christmastide. Later, in medieval and Tudor times, this period of jollity extended until Candlemas on 2nd February, and the part of it between Epiphany and Candlemas was known as Epiphanytide. Six weeks of celebrating Christmas – what a great idea!
Just to throw in further confusion, in some parts of the UK Old Twelfth Night, the traditional Apple Wassail, is celebrated on 17th January. Why that date? It corresponds to 6th January in the Julian Calendar, which was superseded by the Gregorian Calendar in 1750.
As with all thorny issues France, naturally, has a way to get round this particular one of when Twelfth Night is or isn’t. Here Epiphany, the official Twelfth Night, always falls on a Sunday, and so that’s the proper day to eat your galette des rois, or king cake. In France this is a frangipane-filled pastry dish. It contains a fève, which literally means ‘bean’ but these days it’s a ceramic charm. At one time, there would be a white bean and a black bean in the galette des rois. Whoever got the white bean was the king, and whoever got the black one was the queen. This pair got to lord it over the others for the evening. The putting of a bean in a cake started with the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
But come the French Revolution there could be no more religious based fun, so Twelfth Night became the sans culottes (without trousers) festival, and the galette des rois became the galette d’égalité (cake of equality), still with fèves. Even that gateau was banned on and off for a while. But the tradition persevered.
The official way of serving the cake in France is as follows. The youngest member of the household sits under the table, and, as an adult cuts the cake into slices, dictates who is to get which slice. The person who has the fève also gets to wear a paper or cardboard crown.
The current trend of porcelain fèves (with a brief eruption of plastic ones in the 1960s and 1970s) began in Germany in 1874. Porcelain swimmers were the first models. Twenty years later, fèves of all sorts were being produced. Different themes predominated at different times – santons (saints), doves, angels, professions and so on. These days cartoon and film characters tend to prevail, which is quite so classy but clearly a good bit of merchandising. My own collection of fèves includes a Harry Potter bust, a mini-plaque of Titeuf, that bizarre cartoon guy with the yellow hair, Obelix with his menhir, and also Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean momentoes, and quite a lot of others.
Some people get a bit hooked on fèves. Favophilie (sometimes fabophilie) is the activity of collecting the charms from galettes des rois. Seasoned favophiles are after rare ones, or are trying to build up whole series of special edition ones. There are some lovely fèves out there. A particularly nice one I came across on the internet was a collection of the 13 desserts served on Christmas Eve in Provence. You can also get animals (I found a set of pandas and another of koalas aka drop-bears), flowers, trees, Disney, Hello Kitty, symbols, letters, books, playing cards – the list is endless these days. Look up fève on eBay and see what comes up. A lot are claimed to be rare or ancien and maybe they really are. There are certainly some cute and clever ones to be had.
Just like there’s a plethora of fèves, there’s an endless supply of recipes for galettes des rois to be found on the internet and in recipe books. So take your pick. If you’ve never had a French-style king cake, then you really should give it a try as it’s delicious, and the fun with fèves makes it a lovely way to mark the end of Christmas.