It’s round, it’s frosted, and it’s sprinkled in purple, green, and gold. Have you heard of it? Yup: It's the famous King cake. It is a Mardi Gras tradition that is a must-have for all Mardi Gras festivities. But have you ever truly understood why we eat King cake during Mardi Gras?
Let me take you back to hundreds of years ago when King cake became a thing back in Europe. You see, King cake was never originally consumed on Mardi Gras — it was actually first a celebratory pastry during the day of Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian celebration, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas or Three King’s Day. It is celebrated on Jan. 6, and it is widely celebrated as the day that the three kings (or wise men) met baby Jesus. King cake celebrates those three kings by traditionally being made in a circular doughnut shape, which symbolizes a wreath or a crown for the kings. Even the colors are meant to represent the jewel crown of the three kings: Purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
The tradition of eating the King cake started in medieval France and Spain but developed in America, more specifically in New Orleans. What may be news to you is the fact that Mardi Gras isn’t just a day, but an actual season. The reason we celebrate the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is because that day is widely known as Fat Tuesday, aka, the day we indulge on lots of treats before the fasting season of Lent. King cake can be enjoyed throughout the Mardi Gras season (Epiphany to Fat Tuesday), but more commonly enjoyed on the day of Mardi Gras — which is an official holiday in Louisiana.
Another huge tradition that comes with the King cake is hiding a plastic baby inside the cake. Back in colonial Louisiana, Creole citizens would celebrate this time by throwing celebratory balls and enjoying King cake. However, there was always a bean placed inside the cake, and later, nuts, coins, and rings. The person to find the hidden item is titled King for the day and is in charge of throwing the next year’s Mardi Gras celebration with a King cake of their own. Now, plastic baby figurines are normally hidden inside the cake, but the tradition remains the same.
So, to sum this up, we eat Kings cake to celebrate the three kings that met baby Jesus, to enjoy a delicious treat before Lent, and to figure out who is King of them all.