I was twenty-two the first time I heard of Epiphany, a holiday celebrated on the sixth of January. I was having dinner at the home of a French couple with a five-year old daughter. After dinner, the wife, Martine, brought out a rustic looking, bread-like, circular cake that her husband Fabrice — a pastry chef — had made. As Martine served each of us a slice, her daughter disappeared into her bedroom and reemerged with a collection of small gifts wrapped in Christmas paper.
With perfect precision, this child peeled off the tape, carefully unwrapped each gift, and expressed her adoration for each little trinket revealed. We all watched and reacted with appropriate sounds of being impressed as she displayed each of her presents. When she was done, she sat down with us and we began eating our slices of cake.
I wasn’t prepared for the piece of plastic I felt on my third bite, so I politely tried to remove the offensive object from my mouth without anyone noticing. Then the others all began reaching into their mouths and pulling out similar plastic forms. Someone at the table held his hand high and said, “Le Roi”.
The others laughed and congratulated him.
I had received a tiny motorcycle, which was kind of appropriate since that was my mode of transportation at the time. Someone else had a car, and another a bottle of what looked like champagne.
My French was very remedial then (still is), so I had to go home and do more research to unravel the mystery of the events that happened that night. Later, I determined, that without knowing it, I had celebrated Epiphany – a religious holiday – still honored even in secular traditions in France with a special cake called the Gallette des Rois.
The fact that each person received a trinket seemed to be an American variation, like the participation trophy, so no one felt left out. The person who drew “Le Roi” was also not held to the tradition of throwing another cake party before Lent.
But still, that moment stands out in memory. It was then that I began to understand that the American way was not the only way. There’s a whole big world out there…