by Joe Tarabino
The end of the old year is much more than a time for shopping, the exchanging of presents and family gatherings; it has also always been a sacred time.
An old priest friend once noted that he had come to refer to the holidays, specifically between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, as the “dying season”, specifically because it is a time during which many people die. The good padre himself died during this season. In Hispanic cultures, Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is celebrated in the early days of November. Solstice, December 21, is midwinter’s night, the shortest and (potentially) coldest night of the year, and the center of that “dying season”. Humans have been celebrating the winter solstice throughout history as a cultural event which commemorates rebirth, the yuletide traditions of the early Europeans and the traditional Christmas tree being two such traditions. Epiphany, traditionally January 6, and its “King Cake” marks the end of that season and celebrates rebirth.
The King Cake has become associated with the pre-lenten Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) bacchanals. In fact, it originated to celebrate the season beginning on January 6 after the fabled “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and ending at Shrovetide, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season.
The King Cake, like the “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead) on All Souls Day (Dia de los Muertos) which ushered in the winter celebrations, is a sweetbread. It is usually spiced with anise and orange zest and is coated with a glaze. Classic King Cakes are a delicate balance between a coffee cake and a French pastry with a tiny plastic baby baked hidden inside, or simply a fava bean in other cultures. Whoever’s slice contains the artifact is crowned King or Queen of the Day and is expected to buy next year’s delicacy. Traditionally King Cakes are cinnamon flavored, but now-a-days you can get them with anything from pecan praline to apples or filled with cream cheese.
With the January 6 celebration of the Epiphany, midwinter is a thing of the past and, though it is a meteorological fact that the coldest days of the year are yet come, we put aside the journeys of the Pastores and the Magi, the excesses of Halloween, the mall, and online shopping until next year when we repeat the sins of the past. For now, the dying season is over; ‘tis time for the rebirth of nature and springtime!