My mother used to make cardamom cake to celebrate 3 Kings day. Usually we remembered to set out our shoes the night before and sometimes new presents appeared in or next to them the following day. Other years we would save a present from Christmas and open it then, and still others, straggler presents would arrive, just as the original Kings did, a little after Christmas.
I’m sure my mother’s cardamom cake was rich with symbolism, seeing as how it made use of spices from the orient and she always was sure to make it in a round bundt cake pan, so as to retain a close resemblance to the traditional oblong dough-nut shaped rosca. The cake’s traditional round or oblong dough-nut shape makes reference to the Kings’ crowns but also to the circuitous path they supposedly took on their way to Bethlehem in order to avoid King Herod’s Army.
I also know she just liked to have a traditional excuse to make cardamom cake. If we had one, she would tuck a plastic infant inside, but was not above stuffing in a plastic telephone or some other small and toy lying about that could be reasonably cleaned and looked like would withstand the heat of the oven. In this she was also in keeping with tradition: as almonds, coins and beans have also been traditional substitutes for the baby.
Whoever got the baby got to be King for the day. In our house, this meant the title and a paper crown, but in other traditional Mexican households being King also came with responsibility; specifically the responsibility of providing the tamales for the next gathering on February 2nd to celebrate Candle mass in honor of the presentation of Christ (you can read last year’s Feb 2nd post for my rantings on Candle mass). I think the epiphany of January 6th for me was the realization that with a little imagination one could extend the excuse for festivities and merriment all year round. After all shouldn’t we rejoice in life’s miracles each and every day?
This is exactly the way 3 Kings day is perceived in New Orleans, where it marks not the end of the Christmas season, but the beginning of Carnival. Kings cakes are decorated with Mardi Gras colored icing which, in case you didn’t know are: green for justice, purple for faith and gold or yellow for power. We live in Texas now, but the cake we purchased this year at the Hispanic grocery (for I have yet to purchase a bundt pan) came with a packet of purple, green and yellow Mardi-gras beads. The baby, wears a tiny crown.