Or, as suggested by a friend in France, the title should be “The egalitarian galette.” I am re-posting the piece given the date and also because it fits with this year’s theme of life in Canada. PL
by Patricia Lightfoot
When I was a child, a Scottish Highland Christmas was something for children (“the bairns”), whereas the big celebration was Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve. Once we were a few days into the New Year, and everyone’s hangover had subsided, I remember my Scottish grandparents saying that now the festivities were over, it was time to return to “old clothes and porridge.” There was something triumphant, almost gloating, in their voices. All the Christmas decorations, the tree, the lights, the tinsel and the cards had to be taken down specifically before the end of the day on January 6. This could have been because of a desire to tidy up or something darker. Even now, if I am in the home of friends who have left their Christmas tree up until mid-January, I feel a slight sense of unease.
In contrast to this abrupt and joyless end to the festivities, others celebrate the feast of Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the three kings at the stable in Bethlehem. Arriving in France in early January, we found that these celebrations are not restricted to January 6, but can take place at any time in the first few weeks of the year in homes and offices. In most of France, a cake known as the galette des rois is consumed. The galette is a round, flat puff-pastry cake with a filling made of ground almonds, sugar, butter, egg yolks and almond essence. It’s quite easy to make, especially if you use frozen puff pastry. A dried bean or a bean-sized ceramic figure of a saint or bishop is concealed in the almond paste. The person who finds the bean becomes king or queen for the day and can choose their consort. Each monarch gets a gold-paper crown. This is a very pleasant ritual, which generally features the consumption of a sweet white wine, often a Monbazillac or Jurancon in the south-west of France. The point is that only one person gets the bean and chooses their king or queen, but this never seemed to be a problem in France, even in gatherings that featured young children.
Not so in Canada, or at least in my experience of English-speaking Canada. One January 6, I invited friends with young children to join my family and our young children for a galette that I had purchased from a bakery that claimed an affiliation with the Alsace region of France. I produced the galette, which was admired and enjoyed. One of the children found the bean, so I gave her a crown and encouraged her to choose a consort. As I recall, the first protests came from the other mothers. “Surely, everyone should have a crown!” “It doesn’t actually work that way,” I said. The children now joined in, saying that it wasn’t fair. I see now that a consequence of a country being open to new people and new ideas is that traditions that one might have been led to believe immutable when in Europe can be re-interpreted on the fly. On that occasion, the issue was resolved with the application of construction paper, scissors, glitter and tape, and soon there were crowns for everyone.