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  • Writer's pictureKate McGowan

Epiphany, the last hurrah for Christmas.

It’s January 6th, and if you’re particularly organized, you might have packed away all of your Christmas decorations by now. But does Christmas really have to be over so soon? In modern America, we tend to think so, but traditionally the Christmas holiday was a 12-day affair, full of food, feasting, and merriment kicking off on Christmas Day and culminating twelve days later on January 6th, a holiday known as Epiphany.

The Adoration of the Kings, Gerard David c. 1515 ( via National Gallery London)

In the western Christian tradition, Epiphany, also known variously worldwide as Three Kings Day or Little Christmas, commemorates the visit of the magi. Celebration of Epiphany, much like the celebration of Christmas, varies widely worldwide. In many parts of Latin America, this is the preferred date for gift exchanges, while in parts of Ireland, the holiday is colloquially known as “Women’s Christmas” and is often seen as a day for women to relax and socialize together after the business of the Christmas season.

In most of the US, Epiphany might warrant little more than a church visit today, but in the 18th century, especially for Anglicans in the colonies, Epiphany and the night before, known as Twelfth Night, could often be a bigger celebration than Christmas Day itself. While Christmas Day might be a small family affair, Twelfth Night was often observed with grand parties, especially by the Chesapeake gentry, who would use the occasion as means to re-assert their wealth and status. A typical Twelfth Night party would generally include music and dancing, games, and most importantly, a sizeable feast, at the center of which was a Twelfth Night Cake.

A Satirical 1794 Etching of Twelfth Night Festivities in a London Pub (Source)

Though a typical Twelfth Night cake would have borne little similarity to today’s cakes, it was no small production. Typical ingredients would have included heavy spices, wine, and a variety of candied fruits, and, of course, the cake would have to be large enough to feed all the guests. Like most cakes of the time period, the finished cake would have had a texture more like a dense bread, and soaking these cakes in alcohol entirely wouldn't have been uncommon. Beyond taste, Twelfth Night cakes served as entertainment as well—a bean would often be baked into the cake, and whoever found it would be considered King for the evening and be expected to furnish the following year’s festivities. While the Industrial Age brought about the shortening of the Christmas festivities in the West, similar food traditions live on today. Francophone cultures observe the 6th with the Galette des Rois, typically made with layers of puff pastry and apple, while many Latin American cultures have Rosca de Reyes, which is often oval-shaped and decorated with candied fruit to look like a crown. In the US, a similar cake is baked in Louisiana for Mardi Gras, called a King Cake or Galette des Rois.

A Northern French Style Galette du Rois (left) and Mexican-Style Rosca de Reyes (right)

If you’re in need of a little boost of cheer tonight, you can try making this adaptation of Martha Washington’s Great Cake, or maybe whatever box-mix you have in your house. After all, it's the celebration that really matters. Happy Epiphany!

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