An epiphany in Alsace

Yesterday was Epiphany. While this is a purely religious observance in Australia, here in France it’s taken on the same broader cultural significance as Christmas. That is, there’s a cake on offer, a surprise for the children, and you don’t need to be Christian to play along.

The cake is called a galette des rois, and it’s kind of a cross between a cake and a sweet pie. There’s pastry on the outside that surrounds a dense frangipane filling of almond meal in which is secreted one little fève– a small hard object. The fèveplays a role similar to that of a silver coin in a traditional English Christmas pudding. But in this case, the person in whose slice the fève is found, gets to be the king for the day and wear the crown that is generally provided along with the cake.

I’d decided to follow local custom and had resolved to buy a galette des rois at our regular Saturday market. I wandered around the stalls and spotted a mound of rounded tomes accompanied by a stack of gold paper crowns. This had to be it. I confirmed with the shop owner that these were indeed for l’Epiphanie and handed across the euros. He placed it in the bag and, glancing at Silas and Delphine, observed that we’d soon be having a little king or queen at home.

As it turns out, I’d made a bit of a mistake and had actually bought a gateau des rois instead. This is round and comes with afèveand crown too, so my confusion was understandable. But this version is made of brioche and sugary icing. It was a mistake but not an unhappy one. We all agreed that in its buttery, doughy goodness, it was delicious.

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The next morning we travelled down to Thann for church, or “temple” as it’s called here to distinguish it from the Catholic kind. We had the usual readings for epiphany – where Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist and God’s voice resounds through the clouds pronouncing his divinity – but we also had a guest speaker of the more visceral kind. Someone who brought a different kind of epiphany for me.

Our speaker works for the regional government to promote inter-religious dialogue and he’d come to speak about his work. It turns out that Alsace is one of the most religiously diverse regions in France. There are practising Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians of all sorts here, including many more protestants than is generally the case in the rest of France.

He was passionate about his work, and an unrepentantly proud proponent of the depth of inter-religious tolerance in Alsace. He spoke of how the respectful interaction here extends beyond just the larger cosmopolitan towns to also be found in country villages such as our own. Newly arriving rabbis, imams and priests are regularly invited to the worship places of the other faiths to be welcomed to the local community. Perhaps, he opined, this religious diversity and respectful interaction, has been made possible by the openness of Alsace’s geographical location, sharing borders with multiple countries. He imagines Alsace as a “corridor” through which people of many backgrounds have passed over the centuries, and even millennia.

He closed his presentation by clarifying that he didn’t believe the objective of inter-religious interaction was to generate one shared belief system. “Inter-religion is instead a question of dialogue between different faiths. The point isn’t to create one unifying religion, but to build bridges between them all.”

That night, we finished off our gateau des rois. I cut a chunk off for each kid and retreated to the kitchen to do the washing up.

Silas called out, “Mama, I think she’s found it!”

Delphine rushed to explain “I found it in my kouglof.”

Wrong cake, right region.

“I dug in. And I found it.”

“And now I can wear the crown.”

She posed it on her head “I’m King Louis!”

Wrong king, right season.

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