Personal reflections on a French-Canadian holiday
|By Peggy Melanson, Special to PRIME |
For children of French-Canadian descent, Being "Queen or King Bean" on "La F te des Rois", French for "Day Of The Kings" was as important as receiving presents on Christmas morning.
"La Fete des Rois", has other names; "Twelfth Night", "The Feast of The Epiphany" and "Little Christmas" and is celebrated on January 6 each year. Christians believe that this day commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men to the Christ Child. My French-Canadian papa told us that it was also a time to observe our own personal twelve-day journey towards learning kindness and sharing.
This French Christian celebration, which was borrowed from Pagan rites, is called Reveille in French or "Holiday Feast" which comes from the French word Reveilles or revel which means re-awakening delight, carouse or celebrate. The high point of this day is when "LeGallette des Rois" or "The King's Cake" is cut. This custom originated at the Mont-Saint-Michel Monastery in the thirteenth century when a bean was baked into a cake and the finder of the bean became "Epiphany Monarch" (Even the bean has a hint of paganism.) In ancient times, some people considered beans sacred vegetables. My Papa would never acknowledge that our family's "Bean Cake" day was ever part of a Pagan ritual. His standard answer, when we dared to bring this to his attention was, "What could the pagans possibly know about Frenchmen or beans for that matter?" This ambiguous comment was never understood or challenged.
The twelve days between Christmas and January 6 were used for spiritual as well as food preparation. We "kept watch" for the Wise Men.
During the nights before our Holiday Feast, the three Wise Men figurines were magically transported from room to room to signify their long journey to Bethlehem.
In the morning, dressed in pajamas, we ran into each room to see how "far" the statues had traveled during the night. And, when Reveillon finally arrived, Papa placed the figurines before the manger.
Prior to Christmas morning, the baby Jesus was kept covered with a sprig of pine branch. Only on His birthday would Mama unveil Him. This act was figurative of Mary giving birth to Jesus.
We always sang "Happy Birthday" to the baby before going near our stockings or the tree. In addition to "keeping watch" for the three Wise Men, along with other holidays, January 6 was another wonderful time of family gathering and feasting.
One of the Ancient French Provencal customs was to present thirteen desserts with a Panado, or apple cake, usually set in the center of the desserts on the buffet table. This symbolized Christ and the twelve apostles. We were unable to afford thirteen desserts in our family, so we placed our Gallette des Rois cake in the middle of the table surrounded by chocolates taken from my mother's Christmas box of sweets.
The original French cake was an exotic and elegant puff pastry with cream filling. My sensible Irish mother always bought a Boston cream pie (a two layer yellow cake with vanilla pudding in the middle and chocolate frosting on top.) She always managed to lift up the frosted layer and insert a large uncooked lima bean into the filling.
Waiting for the "King's cake" to be cut was almost unbearable for the children. The grown-ups had to complete their rounds of pleasantries and polite conversation before the ceremony could begin.
Papa always enjoyed cutting the cake with a flourish and a boisterous wish that he could be young again so that he could be "King Bean for the day." We always responded, "You will always be our fine king, but hurry and cut the cake."
When I look back, I realize why Mama never made the elegant version of the "King's cake." Within seconds of cutting the thing, we tore our slices apart looking for the prized "Bean." I don't recall ever actually eating the cake. I only remember licking it off my fingers.
It was with much pomp and ceremony that the finder of the bean was crowned.
I can still visualize the gilded, paper crown that went along with the title. It never seemed to stay put on a child's head even when held down with bobby pins. It inevitably ended up covering one eye or falling on a nose.
An old sheet decorated with crayon drawings was made into an elegant robe and a painted broomstick handle was used as a staff.
I still get goose bumps when I recall the only time I won this coveted prize. I spent the day running about the house with my royal mantle flowing behind me, shouting, "I'm Queen Bean, I'm Queen Bean."
I was waited on hand and foot, as was befitting my regal status. It was such fun to have my two brothers at my beck and call for the entire day. My Papa would sometimes stop me in mid-flight to solemnly remind me that I was "Queen Bean" and, should behave as such. This was another "Papa" comment that went unchallenged.
Falling asleep on his lap, wrapped in my Queen's cloak, after an exhausting day of giving "Royal" orders was a wonderful holiday finale. Merry "Little Christmas."
Guest columnist Peggy Melanson was chosen as an Olympic torchbearer for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Ms. Senior Congeniality in the 2004 Ms. Senior Golden Girl pageant. American Movie Classics Television network awarded her "Cool Woman of America." She is a Freelance Writer, Storyteller for Grownups, Performing Artist, "Stonescape Painter" and creator of the "Finding The Courage To Create" Creative Writing/Arts series. As a motivational and creative arts workshop presenter, she teaches, "You really can do it." As "Chef Nostalgia," she has written storytelling food columns for several New England area newspapers and magazines. Readers are encouraged to log onto her website at www.findingcourage.com or send her an email at: email@example.com