Epiphany in France: Origins and Traditions


Epiphany in France takes place on January the 6th. It celebrates the date of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. On this day the three Wise Men arrived from the East, guided by the Star of Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the divine Infant. In France, it is on 6 January that the Wise Men figurines in the nativity scene are placed around baby Jesus. In the lead up to this date, they were either hidden or being gradually moved closer and closer to the stable. French people also celebrate the Epiphany by eating the “galette des rois” (Kings’ cake) with great ceremony!

The original story of Epiphany

Epiphany finds its origins in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew relates the story of the Wise Men’s visit to Jesus in chapter 2, verses 1-12:

(from The Message)

1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signalled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,

no longer bringing up the rear.

From you will come the leader

who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

Angelico: Adoration of the Wise Men

Angelico: Adoration of the Wise Men

Herod’s evil plan…

7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

Albrecht Altdorfer: Wise Men

Albrecht Altdorfer: Wise Men

Why does Epiphany take place on 6 January?

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Magi’s visit to Jesus was arbitrarily set to have taken place on 6 January.

Originally, the Epiphany was a pagan celebration of light which started during the winter solstice on 21 December. This night is the longest of the year and signifies the return and the renaissance of light.

This cycle, through Christmas, lasts 12 days and 12 nights, representing the 12 months of the year, the 12 hours of a day, and the 12 apostles of Christ. The Epiphany is the culmination of this cycle, when days are at their longest.

Who were the Wise Men?

Place de l'église, Kaysersberg © French Moments

The Nativity scene on Place de l’église, Kaysersberg © French Moments

In the Bible, the Gospel of Matthew gives us little information about the whereabouts and the identity of the Wise Men. It does not specify whether or not there were three of them, nor whether they were Kings, where they come from and or what their roles were. It is believed that they were “scholars”, astrologers or scientists of their time. Riding on camels, the Bible tells us that they came from the East.

Religious or popular traditions have built a legend around the Wise Men and their story. This legend, however, appears to be quite far from the true story behind the Magi.

Legend has it…

Popular traditions have given them names and geographical origins:

  • Melchior supposedly came from Europe.
  • Gaspard (sometimes called Caspard) came from Asia.
  • Balthazar originated from Africa. Coming back from Palestine, the local Provencal tradition states that he travelled to Les Baux-de-Provence, where he stayed for the rest of his life. Believing him to be their forefather, the Lords of Baux carried a silver star on their coat of arms and their war cry was “Au hazard, Balthazar!” (“To luck, Balthazar!”).

The Wise Men’s gifts

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Wise Men offered Jesus three expensive gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It was this number of gifts which led the popular traditions to conclude that there must have been three Magi.

The Church has interpreted the gifts as referring to three aspects of Jesus, the Son of God:

  • Gold is the most precious thing in the eyes of God.
  • Frankincense is used by the high priest when talking to God.
  • Myrrh was used to embalm the dead and foreshadow the coming sacrifice of Jesus to save the world from sin.

Epiphany in France: sayings and proverbs

Thorens-Glières by night © French Moments

In the French Alps in Winter © French Moments

In France, many saying and proverbs are said during the Epiphany period, such as:

The Rain of the Kings means corn up to the roof and wine overflowing from the barrels.
(Pluie des Rois, c’est blé jusqu’au toit et dans les tonneaux, vins à flots)

Snow at Epiphany, the barns will be full.
(Neige à l’Epiphanie, le grenier sera rempli)

If the weather is clear on the night of the Epiphany, the stream will be dry in summer.
(Si le soir du jour des Rois le temps est clair, l’été, le ruisseau sera sec)

During the Kings’s celebration, the days extend like a King’s step
(À la fête des Rois, le jour croit d’un pas de roi)

La Galette des Rois: a favourite French dessert!

Galette des Rois © French Moments

Home made Galette des Rois © French Moments

For every French person, the Epiphany is synonymous with the “galette des rois”, a wafer king cake which is eaten ceremoniously a few days before and after 6 January (check out our recipe here!)

The origins of Galette des Rois

Since the 14th century, 6 January is the occasion in France to “tirer les rois” (decide who is the king of the day). A porcelain or earthenware figurine (a charm, called “la fêve” in French) or a broad bean, is placed in a traditional flat cake called “galette” whose round shape symbolises the sun. The “Galette des Rois” is made of flaky puff pastry layers. The cake is filled with a dense centre of frangipane.

The tradition of the lucky charm

Tradition has it that the youngest member of the family goes under the table to distribute the slices to the different people sitting around the table. The person who finds the lucky charm in their slice of ‘galette’ becomes the king (or queen) of the day and must choose his/her companion.

Epiphany Galette des Rois Bauget 04 © French Moments

Lucky charm inside a Galette des Rois at Epiphany by Bauget, Maisons-Laffitte © French Moments

In the past, the flat cake was divided into as many slices as there were people around the table, plus one slice in case a stranger or a poor person were to come to the house. This extra portion was called the slice of God (“la part du bon Dieu”).

Who will offer the best galette!

Every ‘boulangerie-pâtisserie’ (bakery) in France will sell various sizes of ‘galettes des rois’ during the whole month of January, starting from immediately after Christmas. The ‘galette’ will come with a golden crown made of thick paper. Alongside the traditional frangipane ‘galette’, two other king cakes are developing in France: the apple-stuffed galette and the chocolate galette.

Galette des Rois vs. Brioche des Rois

In Provence and in the South of France, the Galette des Rois is replaced by the Brioche des Rois. The ‘galette’ takes the form of a ring of brioche with candied fruits on it.

Epiphany Brioche des Rois Bauget 02 © French Moments

Brioche des Rois at Epiphany by Bauget, Maisons-Laffitte © French Moments

As for the traditional date of the tasting of the ‘galette’, it occurs nowadays on the nearest Sunday to 6 January, as people are not at work and thus the whole family can be gathered around for the event.

Can the French president eat galette des rois?

On a last (and somewhat funny) note, we cannot help but wonder whether a ‘galette des rois’ is ceremoniously eaten by the President of the French Republic and his family. What message would that convey to the French people if the President got the lucky charm? For, if this happened, he would then become the “King for the day” and might even be tempted to take France back to the Old Regime! Oh mon Dieu!

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Epiphany in France: origins and traditions


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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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