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It’s the dreaded question that no parent in Louisiana wants to be asked by their children. Without getting too deep into it, the default answer is China; the plastic, miniature babies are made in China. However, the evolution of this well-known Mardi Gras tradition comes from bean, to ring, to baby.
The Purpose of the King Cake Baby
The modern tradition states that anyone who is served a slice of king cake and gets the baby in their serving is the “lucky” king for a day, and therefore must buy the king cake for next year’s Mardi Gras celebration. Carnival etiquette calls for the cake that the king must buy for next season to be of equal or greater value.
However, for safety reasons, bakers no longer insert their own baby into the king cake due to the fact that the lucky recipients might be unlucky in being served a choking hazard. Thus in the era of the modern lawsuit, bakers find it safer and more cost effective not to place a small plastic toy into their baked goods.
Origins of the Tradition
The journey of the Mardi Gras baby being inserted into a large wreath of a brioche pastry-meets-coffee cake, dates back to ancient times and an old world pagan tradition (like many of our holidays). At one time, and still to this day, pagans celebrate the seasons. Back in the day, in Winter and prior to the spring rituals, an uncooked bean was placed inside a baked cake for the pagan tribes and congregations. Whomever found the bean in their slice of cake would become sacred to their agricultural people. Pagans, being mostly ancient farmers, revered the bean as a sprout, the first to sprout after the death of Winter and prior to the arrival of Spring. This meant the uncooked bean was a great symbol of life, of a new year and a new beginning.
On the other hand, the uncooked bean also became a symbol of sacrifice. The “lucky” person served the bean in their cake was celebrated as sacred, with the arrival of planting season. Yet the “king or queen” was sacrificed prior to the harvest so that their blood spilled into the soil might yield a rich harvest of crops. Perhaps not so lucky, but at least they wouldn’t have to buy next year’s king cake!
One of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans, The Twelfth Night Revelers, has held true to the tradition of the bean since 1870. In their ritual, the krewe still serves king cake, albeit a large wooden replica complete with slotted drawers with one gold-painted bean tucked away inside the ritualistic furniture or jewelry box. Within the model of the wooden cake are silver beans for the ladies of the Twelfth Night Revelers to possibly choose from. A silver bean drawn signifies that one has now become a member of the royal Mardi Gras court, for which the gold bean found determines who their Queen of the Twelfth Night Revelers might be for the Mardi Gras season.
From Bean, to Ring, to Plastic Baby
Upon the arrival of early Christian influence on Western culture, the king cake bean (a leftover from pagans) would be replaced by an embedded silver or gold bean with a paper crown attached the bejeweled or gilded uncooked bean, or a symbol of the baby Jesus. It is believed that in the midst of Winter comes the day of the Epiphany (in which Christians believe that Jesus revealed himself to the three wise kings). This coincides with King’s Day, or Twelfth Night, in Mardi Gras. The Epiphany was also seen as a revelation of the coming Spring.
Before the plastic baby, however, came the ring. The ring was said to be an actual piece of jewelry in some circles of Mardi Gras celebrations dating back to New Orleans in the late 19th century. But at some point, after the turn of the 20th century, the practice of using actual gold jewelry was quickly replaced by a traveling salesman who sold New Orleanian bakers on an adorable porcelain or glass baby, a trinket that could be placed inside of a cooling, fresh baked king cake.
The people of New Orleans found the king cake baby to be adorable, and the tradition stuck. However, the plastic baby made its way into the 20th century in this evolutionary process of Mardi Gras and Carnival season. This plastic infant became so much a part of the New Orleans culture that the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA now have an alternate mascot known only as the ‘King Cake Baby’. It is not so adorable as much as it is the stuff of nightmares.