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A taste of tradition at Epiphany

Epiphany celebrations outside the church at Bigorio in Canton Ticino


The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated in Switzerland and neighbouring countries this weekend with traditional ceremonies dating back centuries - and one which owes its revival as recently as 1952 to Swiss bakers.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, Epiphany has been associated with the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Kings - or Magi - on the day Jesus Christ was baptised.

Traditionally, it marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6.

In many countries colourful processions featuring the Three Kings provide a foretaste of pre-Lent carnivals, and are particularly enjoyed by young children.

But for nearly 300 years, references to the kings were somewhat toned down in much of continental Europe, in the wave of republicanism which followed the French revolution.

It was not until 1952 that the kings made a comeback during Epiphany in Switzerland - and that was as a result of a concerted campaign by the country's bakers. They revived the tradition, which originated in the 14th century of baking a flat cake known as a "galette", each containing a bean.

The cake is eaten on the morning of January 6, and the child whose mouthful includes the bean is allowed to wear a paper crown and, within certain limits, do whatever he or she wants to do for the rest of the day.

For a time the bean was replaced by other objects such as a wooden model of a king.

But after a series of mishaps involving the premature loss of young front teeth from taking an over-enthusiastic bite of the pastry, the wooden king was changed to a softer, plastic model, and this is now the most common.

The "galette" itself a simple pastry made from bread-like dough. Over a million are now sold in Switzerland on the eve of Epiphany - in fact they sell like hot cakes.

by Richard Dawson

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