The Galette des Rois, the King Cake, has a long tradition in France. It is eaten on or around Epiphany, Kings’ Day, January 06, celebrating the visit of the Wise Men, or Three Kings.
The tradition associated with the galette, however, is much older and goes back to Ancient Rome, where during the Saturnalia, a festival around the end of December and the beginning of January, among others, a “King of the Saturnalia” was elected, according to certain sources, with a bean hidden in a cake.
The tradition lived on through the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance where it so happened that one Kings’ Day, the real king, François Ier, after much feasting and celebrating and drinking, wasn’t happy about the “elected” king and with his friends started a snowball fight against him. During that fight, he was hit in the face by a snowball containing a hard object, leaving a permanent scar that he hid by growing a beard, setting a new trend among the male members of the nobility.
For King Cake celebrations at (by then bearded) François Ier’s court, I recommend this excellent blog post by fellow writer Julianne Douglas.
Even the Sun King Louis XIV kept up the tradition, but the French Revolution tried to do away with it, for obvious reasons. The feast of Epiphany was changed to the Sans-Culottes Day (during the Revolution, sans-culottes, literally “without breeches”, were the common people of the lower classes); however the sans-culottes changed the day to the “Day of Good Neighbors” and the cake became the galette de l’Égalité (Equality Cake) and returned to the table.
Today, it can be found in bakeries and supermarkets as early as Christmas, filled with frangipane or in variants including apples or chocolate. The bean (fève in French) has long since been replaced by a porcelain figurine, the collectors of which are called fabophiles.
In this video, Jamy Gourmaud explains the reason: The king of the day had to pay the drinks for everyone, and people would rather swallow the bean than incur the cost. To stop that practice, the real bans were replaced with porcelain ones.
Each cake sold comes with a paper crown for the person who finds the fève in their part.
The cake is cut in as many parts as there are people, and the youngest person in the room hides under the table and announces who gets the next part to be served. The person who finds the fève in their part gets to wear the crown and to choose their queen or king consort.
The only King Cake in France that does not contain a fève is the one served at the Élysée Palace for the President because, in holding with the principles of the French Revolution, one cannot be at the same time president and king.