BLEVINS: The meaning of the festivity before the fast

February 23, 2021

When the doorbell rang the other day, I figured it might be the arrival of some of those online orders all of us placed.

Instead, it was a delicious king cake directly from a bakery in New Orleans — the kind with cream cheese and the festive purple, green and gold sprinkles. My husband ordered this delicacy as a memory of the time he lived in New Orleans.

When I opened it, there was a plastic bag full of beads and the plastic baby to be inserted inconspicuously in the cake. This made me wonder about the king cake and its origins and purpose, so I did what anyone would do and used my computer search friend, Google.

I thought I’d share some of my information as we’ve experienced the end of the winter Ordinary Time and the beginning of Lent because this king cake has everything to do with that.

Most Americans are likely familiar with Louisiana-style king cakes that consist of a cake-y bread dough twisted into a ring and decorated with colored icing and sprinkles, usually just like the one delivered to me.

The oval shape is meant to exude the appearance of a king’s crown. We are also familiar that this cake is a part of the Mardi Gras celebration, which is French for Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras is not just one day but begins on Jan. 6, the Epiphany (the 12th day after Christmas), and ends the Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday, which was Feb. 16 this year.
Mardi Gras is an entire season. Epiphany is also known in some cultures as Twelfth Night or King’s Day. It is now traditional to bake a king cake in honor of the kings who visited the baby Jesus bearing gifts.

The colors of the sprinkles on the cake represent certain values. Purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power.

A small plastic baby, symbolizing the baby Jesus, is hidden inside each cake. The person who discovers the baby in their slice (hopefully before biting down hard necessitating a trip to the dentist!) is either made “king” for the day or has to buy next year’s cake.

The symbolism of this delicacy to the Christian faith is a beautiful tribute to our King, Jesus Christ, who did not resemble earthly kings and rather than a crown of gold and jewels, wore a crown of thorns; His cloak was a borrowed purple cloak placed haphazardly on His body after being scourged, and in mockery, they taunted “King of the Jews!” We walk through His passion and death in this upcoming Lenten season but, in particular, during the sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.
Our hope lies in knowing that Easter Sunday is the day of victory of our King over sin and death.

Just as the plastic baby is hidden in the cake for someone to discover, our King and Savior may be hidden away from us. We may have lost touch with His presence in our everyday lives.

We may have abandoned our prayer life. Lent is the time to discover this Jesus who came to us as a baby in the manger of Bethlehem and traveled His journey toward Golgatha. How can we do that?

To prepare for Lent, Christians prepared pancakes to deplete their stock of eggs, milk, butter and fat, giving rise to Pancake Day in England. So, every year on Shrove Tuesday, we need to not only empty the rich stores of our pantry but look at what we need to empty from our lives to become better disciples of Jesus Christ.

As Lent continues, we need to “empty” concern for ourselves, overfocusing on our own needs, our own hungers and thirsts, and practice the Corporal Works of Mercy.

These actions will take much more of a faith investment than abstaining from wine or desserts and will truly provide us an opportunity to look beyond “self” to “the other.”

This is the fasting that is asked. In practicing this true fasting and journeying with Jesus this Lenten season, we will truly follow the King of Glory into eternity.

Our king cake was eaten in a day, but the symbolism of that cake will last a lot longer. †

Julie Blevins is the director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.

Photo: Mardi Gras King Cake”, by Eric Wagner, licensed under CC BY 2.0.