A Short History of Charms
and Epiphany

Translated from La Collection de Fèves by Huguette BOTELLA and Monique JOANNES, AZ GRAPHIC publishing

Image des fèves

The bean

The bean has been commonly grown and consumed since prehistorical times, and fertilizes the soil wherever it grows. Its odd shape is reminiscent of the embryo or foetus, making it an important part of numerous ancient rites.

For the ancient Egyptians, the “bean field” was the place where the dead awaited to be reincarnated. Beans symbolize the foetus; they are the first gift from the earth when spring comes, a gift from the dead to the living, and they contain the souls of the dead. That is why the Orphics, for whom future life prevailed, forbade the consumption of beans. Pythagoras allegedly let himself be killed by his enemy rather than crossing a bean field.

Various customs give it an important part, for example in divination practices or in the funeral meals celebrated in Rome as part of worshipping the dead, although mashed beans were known to be hard to digest and cause hallucinations, while the scent of bean flowers can affect the brain.

Closely linked to the fertility of the earth, beans were generally considered the symbol of the kindness and the prosperity of the dead. By the Middle-Ages, the subsisting symbol of beans was mainly that of life, which explains the place they were given within wedding and ploughing ceremonies. Their place in the diet was important, as bean soup was a typical peasant meal.

Drawing on the Greek custom of voting with a white bean or a black bean signifying an acquittal or a sentence, they came to be used as voting tokens in Rome. The museum of Kampen (Holland) also harbours a 17th century silver box adorned with the city’s coat of arms and containing about twenty silver and gold-plated silver beans which were used to elect the city’s aldermen.

The Roman era

The election of a temporary king at the winter solstice – the starting point of the ascending phase bringing the renewal of life and nature – was, according to historians, a revival of the Saturnalia, a popular festival celebrated in Rome in honour of the god Janus. During those banquets that have gone down in History, a game took place that designated the king of the festivities, which could be anyone, even a slave. Masters and slaves would swap roles and clothes, and the “monarch” would give fancy orders and have the masters serve him. In the garrisons, a king chosen by the soldiers among the death row prisoners was disguised and took part in the collective debauchery before being beheaded. It was the “December liberty”: for 7 days, all licences were allowed. Expensive gifts were exchanged among the rich; wax candles, the symbol of renewed light, were one of the most common presents. Those times of great chaos, during which serious-minded people would flee to the countryside, expressed a will to relive the golden age of abundance, justice, when all men were equal under the divine rule of Saturn, who had come down to teach the Italian people the art of agriculture.

Image de César

Toward the end of the 4th Century, the Saturnalia were outlawed. Only the celebration of New Year was allowed to take place in the Christian world, but the same festive expressions surfaced again: banquet, exchange of gifts, equality between masters and slaves, masquerades...

The Church now needed to impose its authority, and did so by establishing festivals to replace the pagan celebrations. It started celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25th, when the Indo-Iranian god Mithra was said to have be born, and the sun was reborn just after the winter solstice. Up to then, there was no fixed date for Epiphany (from the Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation”, ”striking apparition”), which was then undistinguished from the birth celebration.

On January 6th, when the Egyptians commemorated Osiris’s resurrection, the Christian Church then fixed the Magi’s worshipping of Jesus in which, according to Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi or wise men came from the East to present the newborn Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The tradition turned the magi into three Arabian kings called Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.

Nowadays, Epiphany is celebrated on the first Sunday of the year, between January 2nd and January 8th.

Actuellement, l’Épiphanie est reportée au premier dimanche situé entre le 2 et le 8 Janvier.

In the Middle Ages

The Feast of Fools, celebrated in December, was characterized by a collective release of tension which enabled people, once the festival ended, to accept the constraints imposed by the ecclesiastical authorities. It had similarities with the Saturnalia, if not in the spirit, then at least in the form.

Image d'une famille à table

In churches, a pope, bishop or king of fools presided. Sat on a throne with a palm in his hand, he would utter farcical sermons, while ceremonies would be ridiculed and young clerics engaged in wild excesses.

Once a year, the Canons from Besançon (a Northeastern French city) would elect their chapter’s master with a coin hidden in a loaf of bread. The various guilds and communities would also choose a king.

People imitated what they saw in churches: the bread became a cake, and a bean, a symbol of life, replaced the coin among the lower classes. Robert, bishop of Amiens, described that cake as being made of puff pastry, butter and fresh eggs, listing it as a constant practice in a charter dated 1311.

The 15th Century would see the spreading of this traditional cake custom.

Image de la royauté

The era of Monarchy

A dispute arose between French bakers and confectioners about the making of the symbolic Twelfth Night or Epiphany cake. The confectioners won the battle, so the bakers made up a cake of their own, which became the famous “galette” and was originally given away rather than being sold. The confectioners went to court to try and outlaw such a practice, which nevertheless persisted until 1914. The bread girl would deliver the cake to the customers, who in return gave her some money as her New Year’s gift, a renewed form of “God’s share” or the “poor man’s share”.

At the French Kings’ court, the Twelfth Night cake’s “kings” were part of the traditions, and attended the “offering” carrying plenty of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It is said that Louis III, Duke of Bourbon (who died in 1419), chose as king the poorest child in the city, who became thus endowed. Héroard, the doctor of the future King Louis XIII, wrote in his journal about the dauphin, who was six years old at the time: “Was made king for the first time. People shouted: ‘the king is drinking. Let us leave out God’s share of the cake, and whoever finds it will give alms’ ”.

Francis I and Henry III of France also ate the Twelfth Night cake. On January 5th 1650, Anne of Austria, having just shared a Twelfth Night cake, was getting ready to flee with the dauphin. The next day, all of Paris heard that “the city walls harboured no more kings except those of the Twelfth Night cake”. Dangeau, Saint-Simon and Mme de Monteville mentioned this festival in their writings. Great Dutch and Flemish painters like Jordaens, Tenier, Von Tilburgh or Jan Steen immortalized the popular festivities of the “Roi-Boit” (“The king is drinking”). At Versailles, hypocrisy ruled, and the artists in residence chose to not depict this practice. The “Gâteau des Rois” by Greuze is a painting of a family scene without any of the bacchanalian characters shown by the previous painters.

In 1664, Jean Deslyons, a doctor at the Sorbonne, and a dean and theological Canon at the Senlis cathedral, published an ecclesiastical speech on the paganism of “Roi-boit”, raging against customs that were too marked by the old myths for his liking. He strongly denounced the “wretched king ruling over the kingdom of wine and debauchery”, elected by “the belly’s conspirators”. Nicolas Barthélémy, a barrister at the Parliament, replied in the same year that the right term was not Phoebe Domine (sun-king), but Fabae Domine (God’s Bean), in his Apologie du Banquet sanctifié de la veille des rois.

During the French National Convention, the celebration of Epiphany came close to being outlawed. It became the “Fête des Sans-Culottes” (The revolutionaries’ festival), and the cake was renamed “cake of Equality”. The mayor of Paris, in a decree dated 4 Nivôse an III (January 4th 1795), denounced the confectioners who still had “the nerve to make and sell Twelfth Night cakes. Considering that such confectioners cannot but have the intention of killing freedom, considering that even several private individuals have ordered it, probably with the intention of keeping the superstitious custom of those kings’ festival... we will have to... discover and ban the offenders among the confectioners and the people engaging in orgies during which they dare celebrate the shadows of tyrants”.

Did the bakers follow commercial requirements or did they wish to express their opinion by persisting in selling the Twelfth Night cake?

Along the same lines, in the early 20th Century, at the time of the separation of Church and State, some biscuit figurines were made in the shape of fleur-de-lis and crosses with fleur-de-lis ends to be used as a stencilled ornamentation on cakes: applied on the pastry before it was sprinkled with powder sugar, the figurines would leave the outline of the subversive symbol. Those cakes were sought after and ordered specially by monarchists and clerics.

The French Twelfth Night Cake made it through the centuries against all odds. During the Siege of Paris, some records mentioned that “in spite of the current difficulties, the custom has not been forgotten. For lack of the usual almond puff pastry cakes, the confectioners made a cake with fat, which can only be praised for harbouring a bean or fava bean”.

De nombreux rites jalonnent le «cycle des 12 jours», période qui s’étend de Noël à l’Épiphanie.

Numerous rites punctuate the “12 day cycle” or Christmastide between Christmas and Epiphany, one of the last ones being the custom of raising money dedicated to “God’s share” or “the poor man’s share” by going from door to door and singing carols. The custom took place the day before Epiphany or on the morning of Epiphany, having different names according to the regions: “guillannée” in Joigny, “grilanlai” in St-Florentin, or “guiyonnet” in Pont-s/Yonne, and was still current practice in the Puy-de-Dôme area around 1940-1950.

In Switzerland, where the custom was revived, part of the profit made by the bakers was given out to charity.

In Aix-en-Provence, the Belle-Étoile procession, comprised of Magi costumes and other masks, would parade for the collection, lead by a silver paper star propped on a pole as a reminder of the star that once guided the Magi all the way to Bethlehem.

On the Kings’ Night, deemed a magical night, in many provinces young maidens wishing for a husband would invoke the Magi and ask them to make their betrothed appear in their dreams.

Every night of Christmastide, the wind would carry the sounds of King Herod’s galloping horses and of his horsemen covered with the Innocents’ blood.

One volume of the Manuel de folklore français contemporain by Van Gennep is an interesting reference about Christmastide or the “12-day cycle”, despite it being left unfinished upon the death of the author.

In the North of France, Holland and Belgium and from the 16th Century onward with the evolution of the printing industry, some prints called “billets des Rois” were sold in the streets on the day before Epiphany. These notes, meant to be cut out, depicted a fancy court with a king, a fool, a carver, a minstrel, a pourer, etc. Drawn at random, they indicated each guest’s part to play during the festivities; the practice lived on until the 20th Century.

Other interesting testimonials include the “Kings’ crowns”, the oldest ones being made of lead, some of which were found in the Seine River and can now be seen in the Musée de Cluny, as well as the “méreaux”, small lead or copper tokens used as fancy currency and coined especially for the festival, which enabled people to participate in the banquets or games.

The early 20th Century

Let us see now how people ate the twelfth Night cake at the turn of the 20th Century.

The father would cut a slice of cake for each guest as well as “god’s share” or “the Virgin’s share”, reserved for a beggar who might appear at the door. Everyone had to eat their share of cake, as it protected people, especially children, against Herod’s henchmen wandering about all through the night before the Holiday.

The youngest child, hidden under the table, would choose the recipient of every slice. The father asked, “Phaebe Domine for whom?”, and the child would name the guests. Was the phrase an invocation to the sun Phoebus or did it mean “Lord of the Bean”? The question remains unanswered.

The bean was found to the cheers of “Long live the king!”, and every time the king took the cup to his lips, everyone exclaimed: “The King is drinking!”

Whoever neglected his duties as a King got his face and hands blackened with soot. The King chose his Queen by throwing the bean into the lucky woman’s glass. In some families, a bean and a fava bean were both hidden in the cake in order to have a King and a Queen. The King owed his Queen a present and had to treat her to a drink on the following week, a privilege that proved expensive, prompting some to silently swallow up the legume they had found.

Image des fèves

At the end of the 19th Century, with industrialization and the new fashion of trinkets and dolls, a not so digestible porcelain figurine appeared, which was to gradually replace the bean.

Those miniatures were not to the taste of everyone, though, as shows an article of the magazine “L’Illustration” dated January 9th 1904 mentioning the Epiphany celebration and accompanied by the drawing of a young child: “the artist deserves credit for having drawn on the Italian masters charming children figurines, thus embellishing the hideous porcelain figurine that has unfortunately been substituted for the traditional bean in the last few years.”

In Provence and Spain, the custom of the bean in the cake was preserved, and a porcelain figurine simply added to it; whoever would find the figurine would be king, while the person finding the bean would have to treat everyone to drinks and food!



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