Where does this popular Christmas tradition come from?
One of the most cherished Christmas traditions in Spain is eating the roscón de Reyes with the family. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a coin or a bean in your slice or, in some cases, a figure from a Nativity scene. Nowadays there is a wide variety of these cakes, some with candied fruit and cream and others without. In any case, children love to eat the roscón on the sixth of January after opening gifts that the three Reyes Magos (or wise men) left for them the night before.
To understand the story of this ring-shaped cake, we have to travel back to the second century where peasants and slaves celebrated finishing their work with a pagan festivity called “Saturnalia”. When Christianity was imposed on Spain, the pagan festivals stopped being celebrated, but the cake lived on. Some time later, the tradition of the cake combined with that of the bean. The bean, at that time, was a symbol of fertility; whoever found the bean in the cake would be granted good fortune and was crowned the ‘king’. However, these symbols changed; a coin was introduced as the symbol of prosperity and the bean became seen as a symbol for bad luck.
In the nineteenth century this famous cake became associated with Christmas celebrations, and it was decided that it was Three Kings’ Day (el Día de Reyes). From then on, it was called roscón de Reyes, or ‘Kings’ Cake’.
Where roscón de Reyes is eaten
The tradition of celebrating Three Kings’ Day, and with it the tradition of the roscón, extends across the whole of Spain. It is a tradition which is kept going thanks to families, public institutions and the media. This tradition is also celebrated in other European countries such as Belgium, Austria and Poland. In other countries it is celebrated in some regions, but not the whole country. There are also some countries in Latin America that have kept the tradition from when it was brought over from Spain during the period of colonisation. Some of these countries include Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela.
Making the roscón
The roscón is made with basic ingredients. We can’t forget that it was originally a food made by slaves. To make it you need flour, butter, eggs, sugar, milk, yeast, grated orange zest, orange blossom water and flaked almonds. It can be decorated with candied fruits and is sometimes filled with whipped cream. Making a roscón takes between an hour and a half and two hours. Then it is put in the oven for twenty minutes. The fact of the matter is that the roscón is not easy to make! Because of this, families often buy it in bakeries; in the most popular bakeries they have to order it in advance if they want to make sure they’ll have a roscón on Three Kings’ Day.
Nowadays there are championships to pick the best cakes in each province. Media outlets, like Vogue (España), even make their own lists of the best roscons in the whole of Spain. In 2021 the most renowned bakeries for selling these cakes were in Madrid, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca (Balearic Islands).
The roscón de Reyes is a charming Christmas tradition that stretches all across Spain. Anyone visiting the country during the first week of January will find that all the bakeries are full of these delicious buns and will feel the need to try one! Watch out for the bean, it will give you bad luck! Enjoy!