The other night over a dessert of the ever-present galette des Rois – a January staple in France – my dinner host Jean asked me if in the U.S. we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany in this way. He was wearing a paper crown atop his head as he said this, having found the fève, which is the word for a bean but that has come to mean in this context the little token hidden in a slice of the galette des Rois. The person who finds the fève becomes the king or queen of the day (a temporary Magi, as it were) and the right to wear the silly paper crown, which most people actually do, at least for a minute or two. (And most galettes des Rois come with their own little crowns.)
As for celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, I replied that it wasn’t marked in the U.S. by any cultural observation, except perhaps in certain regions, or in certain families depending on their ethnicity or religion. In any event, while the French widely celebrate the feast, they do it in a culinary rather than a devotional way through offering the galette des Rois, a tart made of puff pastry with a frangipane filling. This being France, food traditions remain much stronger than religious observances.
The galette des Rois is also a way of prolonging the holiday season well into the gloomy month of January, a freeing of the spirit through pâte feuilletée. As a result, you are served desserts of galettes des Rois for several weeks, either the classic frangipane or a variation – with apples, or lemon curd or even a circle of brioche in the form of a crown. Each of them comes with a little fève, and these fèves are often quite charming examples of craftsmanship. They’re about the size of Monopoly tokens, and can range from semi-abstract representations of animals to detailed cartoon figures (the Simpsons, Disney princesses, J.R.R. Tolkien characters) to portrayals of buildings or cars or sometimes household fixtures such as lamps. They are collectible (though I have no idea how you’d display your cherished collection of your series of half-inch figurines). There’s even a French word for a collector of these seasonal fèves, a fabophile, and the collecting of fèves: la fabophilie. But this is just a local version of the human tendency to hold onto things of no value.
What really holds is the tradition, even as the customary Epiphany galette des Rois season stretches beyond that day into several weeks, until February 2, with la Chandeleur, or Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, when you move onto serving crêpes or beignets. And even the making or eating of crêpes has its own ritual.
But then, everything here has its own ritual, its own long history, its own regional variation on that history and ritual. And these rituals, particular to France (or to Europe), remain essential to the national cultural lexicon. Some of these appeal to me, having been raised in a country that doesn’t really hold by ritual, especially culinary ones. This is fine – you can become too hidebound by tradition, just as you can become wearily accustomed to tearing things down to rebuild. America is too new, too large, too diverse and maybe too disputatious a country for a seasonal tradition such as the galette des Rois to become planted in the public imagination. In America these days no one can even agree on what a patriot is, so it’s hardly likely that a simple tart with a rich cultural history is likely to be a national touchstone for moving from darkness into light.
French friends often ask me if Americans note such-and-such date or eat such-and-such dish or maintain such-and-such tradition as do the French. Dates, dishes and traditions are far more important to the French than to Americans, who aren’t likely to ask the French similar questions (putting aside a general lack of curiosity about other countries and cultures among many of my compatriots). Like France, America has its regional specialties, local customs and family traditions, but unlike France, America is less culturally homogenous at the national level. And far less in thrall to how things were done, or less likely to uphold ways of doing things for the sake of doing them. The United States is a country where immigrants and different nationalities hold onto their cultural identities despite assimilation, whereas in France you’re expected to respect above all the idea of Frenchness that exists to some extent in maintaining those French traditions, no matter where you’re from.
Since I’m often something of an outsider in most situations, I can appreciate the upholding of traditions such as the galette des Rois that create a commonality of experience. It’s not that eating the galette makes me feel French (which would be impossible), but that living for a while in a culture where eating such things is a mark of respect for what’s gone before allows me to seem less apart from my own sense of self. I borrow this or that tradition just as I borrow the Paris apartment of my friends, so that I can live in France temporarily and craft an interim home out of something that isn’t mine. I share in someone else’s cultural tradition to create a memory of belonging, since I don’t really belong anywhere, nor do I own anything other than those fleeting experiences. I live a borrowed life in a way, but then, who doesn’t?
Although I come from a country whose culture is commercial, I like the culture of a country such as France whose traditions are often stronger than that, or where at least the respect for tradition hasn’t been entirely erased by the pursuit of wealth.
“I’m surprised you don’t observe Epiphany,” my friend Pierre said at that dinner the other night. “You Americans celebrate everything.”
“It just seems like that,” I said. “Most American holidays are really just a way of organizing the calendar around sales.”