The “Kings’ Cake”, or galette des rois, was so called because it was traditionally served at Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings, the Magi who visited the baby Jesus. It is first mentioned in the early 1300s in France, from which it spread to Germany and then much of the rest of Europe.
In 1792 French revolutionaries tried to suppress the selling of “king cakes” as irreconcilable with the republican sentiment they wished to foster. In Bourdeaux they were called instead “cakes of liberty”. Epiphany was stripped of its religious connections and celebrated as part of “la fête des sans-culottes” (the festival of the revolutionary working class). In Paris 1794 on Christmas Eve (4 Nivôse III in the new republican calendar) the mayor ordered the arrest of pastry cooks for their “liberticidal tendencies”. Taverns named after the Three Kings, who had come to be regarded as the patron saints of inns, changed their names to avoid incurring the wrath of radicals.
It was sometimes the custom in France for the first two pieces of the cake to be set aside for the bon Dieu and the Virgin and for these pieces to be given to the poor who knocked on the door at Epiphany.
The custom crossed the Atlantic to New Orleans where the King Cake now contains a bean or plastic baby. He who finds the prize must host the next King Cake party, hundreds of which are held every Epiphany. One Mardi Gras organization even uses the King Cake tradition to choose the queen of its annual ball.