The Twelfth Day of Christmas is the day the Portuguese remember the kings, or as the Wise Men. They arrived from the far east to worship the Christ Child.
Of course, there is a special food for this celebration. That would be the Bolo Rei – the King Cake. Of course it is available all through the Christmas season, but one simply cannot not have a Bolo Rei. It is made from sweet bread dough, and filled with dried and candied fruit. Embedded in the dough is a fava bean and a small toy.
When the King Cake is served, the person who has the slice with the toy is to have a prosperous new year. Those who pull the fava bean out of their slice must purchase the King Cake the following year. The cake is much better than our traditional fruit cake, and it is amazingly good toasted the next day if you have any left over.
In my family, Christmas ended when December 26th arrived. We always sang about the twelve days of Christmas, but we didn’t know that the song held a wealth of uncharted tradition. In Portugal, Christmas Day was only the beginning of celebration. It ended on January 6th, when we celebrated King Day to remember the Wise Men who traveled long and far to see the Christ child. In American liturgical churches, we call it Epiphany.
The King Cake – Bolo Rei – is ubiquitous all during the holiday season. Bolo Rei attended every party and every get together during December and into January. It is a beautiful and delicious cake made from a rich yeast dough laced with spirits. The cake had dried fruits, candied fruits and nuts in the batter.
The cake had two hidden secrets inside that were wrapped in parchment paper: a coin, and a fava bean. There are different customs around the country, but what I was told was that the person who had the coin (or toy) in his slice would have good fortune for the next year. The person who got the fava would have to bring the Bolo Rei next time. The cake was always good fresh and even better toasted and buttered the day after.
On January first, I was done with Christmas and ready to take the tree down and get back to whatever would be closest to normal. Then Harry asked me, “Why are you taking the tree down already? My mom always left the tree up until after my birthday on the seventh. And she always made me a Red Velvet Cake.” Birthday? Ooops!!