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CHRISTMAS

What you need to know about Spain’s festive Roscón de Reyes cake

Every culture has a particular food associated with Christmas and in Spain there is nothing more typically festive than the Roscón de Reyes, the 'Cake of Kings'. Here's what you need to know about this tradition and its fascinating origins.

What you need to know about Spain's festive Roscón de Reyes cake
Spain can thank France for the reintroduction of the Roscón de Reyes to Spanish end-of-year celebrations. https: lilliana Fuchs/ Flickr

On January 6th to celebrate Epiphany, Spaniards typically tuck into this Roscón de Reyes (also called rosca or rosco), a golden brioche shaped like a large doughnut decorated with candied fruit.

The traditional sweet dough of a Roscón is scented with orange blossom and can be served with cream but for many it’s best when dunked into steaming a mug of rich hot chocolate after an evening watching the Cabalgata – the lavish parades held across Spain on January 5th when the Three Kings distribute sweets and presents to children.

The cakes, which symbolise the crowns worn by the Three Kings or Wise Men on their visit to baby Jesus, traditionally contain a little figurine for children as well as a dry fava bean.

Whoever finds the toy is crowned king or queen of the celebration, while the one who finds the bean has to buy the roscón next year.

roscon de reyes spain
The Roscón de Reyes often comes with a crown for the winner to wear. Photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes/Flickr

On previous years, El Corte Inglés promised an even greater prize by hiding one gram gold ingots in 1,000 of its cakes sold in the run up to Epiphany, each ingot with an estimated value of around €50, as well as three special prizes of a gold ingot weighing an ounce with a value of over €1,000.

Spain’s flagship department store won’t be giving gold to customers this year but at least their roscón has been named the best in Spain according to Spanish consumer watchdog OCU, which is a good job as they sell 600,000 of these cakes every year, in 25 different varieties.

The origin of the roscón can be traced back to the 2nd century AD as part of the Romans’ pagan Saturnalia celebrations, which also took place at the end of year and usually included a sacrifice, gift-giving, plenty of partying and a public banquet to celebrate the end of the darkest period of the year.

Saturnalia celebrations depicted by 18th century French painter Antoine Callet.
Saturnalia celebrations depicted by 18th century French painter Antoine Callet.

Of all the delicacies on offer the most popular was a honey-based cake with nuts, dates and figs. 

A century later, they added a bean to the mix, a symbol of prosperity and fertility, but it wasn’t long before the consolidation of Christianity and then Moors in Spain saw this pagan tradition fade into the background. 

There are some written references to its existence during the Middle Ages but it truly returned with a bang more than a millennium later thanks to French-born Spanish King Philip V, who followed the lead of his monarchic family over the border, as they’d already been enjoying a version of roscón at the Court of Versailles in the late 17th century.

Le gâteau des rois, as the roscón de reyes was known in France, by French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1744).
Le gâteau des rois, as the roscón de reyes was known in France, by French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1744).

Now rather than just hiding beans in the dough they also added gold coins, an idea which historians say a French chef came up with to try to dazzle a young King Louis XV of France. 

Whoever got the coin was the winner, and whoever landed the bean was the loser. 

The tradition has lived on in Spain until the present day and is now associated with the arrival of the Three Kings on January 6th for Epiphany, but other versions of roscón are also eaten in France, Portugal, Colombia and Mexico.

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SEMANA SANTA

‘We’re strong enough’: Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain's famous Semana Santa processions 30 years ago, female "costaleros" - as float bearers are known - remain a minority who still face resistance.

'We're strong enough': Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

On Holy Monday in the historic city of Granada in southern Spain, a team of 50 women rock rhythmically from foot to foot carrying a 1.5-tonne float topped with a statue of Jesus and Mary.

They support the weight on wooden ribs under the belly of the float as they inch forward through the city for ten hours.

A heavy velvet cloth draped over the float leaves only their white shoes visible to throngs of spectators lining the route.

The parades featuring dozens of people dressed in religious tunics and distinctive pointy hoods have returned this Holy Week after being cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic the past two years.

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain’s famous Easter processions 30 years ago, female “costaleros” — as float bearers are known — remain a minority who still face resistance.

Women have traditionally formed the back line of the processions, playing the role of mourners dressed in stylish black dresses, embroidered veils and intricately designed hair combs.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

At first “it was not accepted, women were talked bad about,” said Pilar del Carpio, a 45-year-old cashier who has been a shrine bearer since she was 13 and is proud to be one of the “pioneers”.

Today only three or four of Granada’s 30 brotherhoods, which stage the processions, include women costaleras.

“Maybe there are people who think it is not normal,” said Maria Auxiliadora Canca, a 40-year driving instructor who directs a team of float bearers in Ronda, another Andalusia city in southern Spain.

“Since our bodies are capable of doing it, and we do it with conviction, I don’t see why there should be a difference.”

‘Scandal’

But in Seville, which holds Spain’s most spectacular Easter parades, there are no women float bearers even though the city’s archbishop in 2011 issued a decree to put an end to gender-based discrimination in the city’s religious orders.

Opponents claim the task is too physically demanding, “not suitable” for women.

“It’s a scandal,” said Maribel Tortosa, 23, who manages an Instagram account called “Costaleras por Sevilla” dedicated to women float bearers.

People say that it is “ugly” to see a woman wearing a “costal”, the traditional padded sack used by bearers as protective headgear, she said.

Two female float bearers “Costaleras” of the “Trabajo y Luz” (Work and Light) brotherhood hug each other after ten arduous hours of heavy lifting. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

“But under a float, you don’t see anything,” she added.

Still, the emergence of women float bearers reflects the growing push by women in Spain into traditionally male-dominated fields since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

Spain’s oldest police force, the Guardia Civil, has since 2020 been headed by a woman — a first in its 178-year history.

And since Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez came to power in 2018, women have taken up most cabinet posts for the first time in history.

‘Strong enough’

In Granada, locals are no longer surprised to see women training on the streets in the lead up to Holy Week by lifting and carrying a float loaded with bricks.

The load “weighs more every hour”, even though the shrine bearers are replaced every half hour during the “Work and Light” brotherhood’s procession, which began Monday at four pm and ended at around one am, said Rafael Perez, who heads the team of women shrine bearers.

Working with women “changes absolutely nothing. I just have to treat them with more tenderness,” said Perez.

Among the women of this religious order was Montse Ríos, 47, who has been a bearer since she was 19 and who still feels “strong enough to go under”.

Her eldest daughter joined her this week under the float, while her youngest is a “pipera”, giving water to the procession participants.

“And we don’t lack that,” she added.

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