By Kirsti Scott
Visiting other places exposes us to new celebrations and traditions. For example, you have probably heard of Bastille Day, the Cannes Film Festival, and the Tour de France. But other special times in France include a celebration of the arrival of new wines in the fall and plenty of religious celebrations throughout the year. One of the latter is Epiphany on January 6th, the day on which the Fête des Rois is celebrated with a galette des rois, or king cake.
Starting at the end of December, pastry shops in France begin to fill their cases with golden king cakes. Each flaky cake filled with almond cream filling comes with a cardboard crown and contains a tiny surprise: baked inside is a tiny “fève.” Fève literally means fava bean, as the original items baked into the king cakes were tiny beans. Once the cake is cut and served, whoever finds the tiny fève or charm is crowned ruler for the day.
Three Kings Day, like many modern religious days (Samhain/Halloween, Yule/Christmas), has its roots in pagan festivals. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was celebrated in December and whoever found a bean hidden inside a cake switched roles with someone for the day. A slave became master and a master served the slave for the day.
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From France, the tradition of celebrating the Festival of Kings traveled to New Orleans, where colorful king cakes with hidden plastic babies are ever-present during Mardi Gras. In Spain, Latin America, and Portugal, you’ll find sweet cakes filled with fruit and nuts. In Bulgaria, soft cheese surrounded by phyllo dough called banitsa is stuffed with a charm and written fortune. New Year’s Day is celebrated in Greece and Cyprus with vasilopita, a round pastry with almonds on top and a coin baked inside.
We have written before about the tiny “penny dolls” that beachcombers find on their shores. The charms in king cakes are very similar. Small enough to fit on a fork (usually under 11/2 inches in size), tiny ceramic or porcelain fèves replaced the fava beans in king cakes in the 19th century. Early fèves often represented nativity figurines or babies, however now there is an ever-expanding range of figurine designs.
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In the 1980s, fève collecting took off. Some collectors (called Fabophiles) collect antique charms, some have collections with a certain theme (animals, cartoon characters, etc.), and others collect modern sets with figures licensed from popular culture (Disney, Harry Potter, etc.) or created by fashion designers. After World War I, fève production was centered in Limoges, where Limoges Castel manufactured several million porcelain fèves each year. Production ceased in France in 1988 and now virtually all fèves are made in China, some are made in Vietnam, and one French company, Colas, still makes pottery figurines by hand. Today, plastic fèves have replaced many of the porcelain and ceramic pieces.
Like so many tiny items, toys, and pieces of trash, fèves were discarded and ended up on beaches around the world. I have found one fève, but it’s plastic, so I’ll keep looking! And, the next time you find a tiny figure on the beach, before you assume it was just a penny doll, remember that it may have had a more royal start in a king cake.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2023 issue.