The end of the Christmas Season on the Azores – 6th of january, Epiphany, King Cake (Bolo Rei) & Queen Cake (Bolo Rainha)
6th of January, Epiphany (also known as King’s Day)
What is Epiphany celebrating? What are the Epiphany traditions in Hungary and in Portugal?
The 6th of January, Epiphany – also known as King’s Day – is a feast day marking the last day of the 12 day long Christmas celebrations. This day also marks the beginning of the Carnival – also known as Mardi Gras – season. It is customary for Christians in many localities – Hungary included – to remove their Christmas decorations. Traditionally, people used to believe that tree-spirits lived in the trees, holly, and ivy in their homes which brought blessings and good harvest. These spirits would seek shelter there during the cold winter, but if they weren’t released after Christmas their good energies would be gone.
When Jesus was born, January 6th marked the day when John the Baptist came to baptise him, and the three Kings (also known as three Wise Men) came with their gifts for the baby. I am not sure if the concept of nameday exists in other countries, but in Hungary, this day is also the nameday for the three Kings: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. According to the gospel the Wise Men followed the star of Bethlehem to Judea to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. But after not finding him in Jerusalem, King Herod sent them to Bethlehem where they found the child and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In Italy the 6th of January marks the arrival of Befana, the Good Witch, who brings presents to the kids. In Eastern Churches following the Julian calendar – for example the Orthodox Russians – this is the first day of Christmas celebrations (because of the 13-day difference between that calendar and the generally used Gregorian calendar). Consuming a Three Kings Cake is a popular Epiphany custom. This cake is called Roscón de Reyes in Spain, Vasilopita in Greece, Galette des Reis in France and Switzerland, and Bolo-Rei in Portugal.
Bolo-Rei – Traditional Portuguese Christmas Cake
The traditional Christmas cake of Portugal – and thus the Azores – the Bolo-Rei (which translates as „king cake”) has a soft, white dough which resembles brioche, but also is similar to a fruit bread. The colorful cake itself is round with a large hole in the centre, resembling a crown covered with crystallized dried fruit. The beautifully wrapped Bolo-Rei is sold from mid-November onwards. The Bolo-Rei is baked from a soft, white dough, with raisins, various nuts and crystallized fruit. This staple dessert in any Portuguese home during the holidays is is usually eaten around Christmas, from December 25 until Epiphany (Dia de Reis) on the 6th of January. According to Christian legend the cake serves as a representation of the gifts offered by the Three Wise Men with the golden crust (gold), fruits (myrrh), and it’s delicious smell (frankincense). The colorful and crystallized dried fruits also represents the gemstones of the crown. Also included is the characteristic dried fava bean, and tradition dictates that whoever finds the fava has to pay for the Bolo-Rei next year. According to other customs, the person who finds the bean in her or his slice will be lucky all year round, or will be the Queen / King of the day. A small prize (usually a small metal, plastic, or ceramic toy shaped like a king of like baby Jesus) was also included within the cake. The inclusion of the prize has been discontinued according to EU regulations, due to potential choking hazards. In the United States many bakers have recently been placing the prize outside of the cake, and leaving the hiding to the customer because there is a potential of customers choking on or swallowing the prize, and bakers want to stay clear of this liability. According to the legend when the three Wise Men arrived to baby Jesus they could not decide who will offer his gifts first to the newborn, the local baker had the brilliant idea of hiding one bean in a brioche and cutting it into three parts and whoever finds the bean gets to offer his present first. The „female version” of Bolo-Rei is Bolo-Rainha (which translates as „queen cake”) is made with only dried nuts, without the crystallized dried fruits.
King Cake Recipe
If this short introduction made you curious about this wonderful cake and you would like to try and make this famous Portuguese sweet at home then you can find a Bolo-Rei recipe here.
This year (2017) was the first time I had the pleasure of trying this cake, thanks to my Portuguese friend Nuno. Thank you so much Nuno! Nuno gifted a beautifully wrapped Bolo-Rei to my family, which we shared at home in Hungary on Christmas Eve. It was delicious, absolutely recommended. Most Azorean bakeries are selling uniquely packaged Bolo-Rei, but there are lot of places where you can get a slice (meaning you don’t have to buy an entire cake). Since I have yet to find a gluten-free version of Bolo-Rei, it was mainly my family who did the „quality assurance”, but they were delighted and would recommend you try it, too.