The King Cake Portuguese Christma's tradition and curiosities



The Portuguese Rooster is writing a Christmas card at his table. The living room looks cozy with the fireplace on fire and the Christmas tree decorated with green and red balls. The walls are decorated with blue tiles. On the table, look, there's a King Cake! The custom of sending Christmas cards was started in the UK and then took over the world. Many say it’s an obsolete tradition but the Portuguese Rooster thinks that sending an SMS or an e-mail is no match for seeing your loved one's handwriting. Be like the Portuguese Rooster!

1. The King Cake represents the gifts that the three Wise Men gave to Baby Jesus at his birth. The golden tone of the crust symbolizes gold; the fruits, candied and dried, represent myrrh; and the aroma of the cake is about the incense.

2. There's a legend of the king Cake and the fava bean that goes like this:

When the Three Wise Men saw the Star of Bethlehem announcing the birth of Jesus, they disputed among themselves which of the three would have the honor of being the first to deliver the gifts they were carrying. A baker then made a cake hiding a fava bean inside the dough to end the discussion among them!. Each of the three Wise Men would take a slice, and the one who was lucky enough to remove the slice containing the bean would be the one who would win the right to deliver the gifts to Jesus first. Who was the lucky winner? No one knows! I grew up with this tradition: the one who founds the fava bean would be responsible for buying the bolo rei the following year.

3. The facts were that the Romans used fava beans in the Saturnalia banquets to elect the King of the Feast. This custom would have originated in a children's game that was very common during those celebrations and which consisted of choosing a king among themselves, drawing him by means of a raffle of the beans. This game ended up being adopted by the adults, who started to use the beans to vote in the assemblies. 

4. The Catholic Church decided to link Saturnalia with the Nativity and, later, also with the Epiphany (the days between December 25th and January 6th). This last date ended up being designated by the Church as Three Wise Men or King's Day. In Spain, they eat bolo-rei on this occasion and also distribute gifts to the children.


5. There was a small metal gift inside the cake too! This tradition came from pagan rituals it has to do with the mythical boatman from Hades, Caronte, who transports dead souls to their destination and demands payment. I think it's a sign of luck to find the metal gift of King Cake. Initially, the traditional bolo rei offered a pound in gold as a gift, but in times of greater restraint, the pound became small ceramic or tin objects.

5. In 1999 a decree prohibited objects from being added to the cake as there were records of some accidents that took place when someone accidentally swallowed it. In 2001 they were allowed again as long as they were properly packaged.

6. In France under Louis XIV, the Gâteau des Rois (Kings Cake) was eaten to celebrate New Year's and King's Day. With the arrival of the French Revolution, in 1789, the Bolo-Rei was banned due to its designation and the confectioners decided to change the name to Gâteau des sans-culottes. The "sans-culottes" wore long coarse cotton trousers, a garment typically worn by the bourgeoisie. These were usually the leaders of demonstrations in the streets.

7. The french recipe was brought to Portugal in the second half of the 19th century by Baltazar Rodrigues Castanheiro Júnior, heir to the founder of Confeitaria Nacional, in Lisbon. This was the first house to bake and sell a King cake in Portugal. Gregório was the name of the famous confectioner who baked it for the first time.

8. On February 1, 1908, King D. Carlos and his son, D. Luís Filipe, his natural successor, were murdered. Against all odds, D. Manuel took the throne, becoming the last Portuguese monarch.  In 1911, a year after the implementation of the Republic, a change to the name of Bolo-Rei was proposed in the Assembly of the Republic. The idea is rejected but it gained other names such as Bolo de Natal, Bolo de Ano Novo, or even Bolo Arriaga, the name of the first elected President of the Portuguese Republic. Even conservative Republicans continued to eat it but they preferred to call it Christmas Cake or New Year's Cake.

9. There's also a Bolo Rainha (Queen Cake) and its recipe also comes from France, but only in recent years has Bolo Rainha become a Christmas tradition. That cake is more pleasing for those who dislike candied fruit since it only has dried fruit.

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