The Tradition of Panamanian Christmas Bread Rings

Every year someone asks what’s up with those bread rings that seem to invade Panamanian grocery stores for months on end?  Well before we get to the actual piece of bread/cake, it’s best to delve into the history of the “twelve days of” thing. The midwinter festival of the ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth of Horus. It was 12 days long, reflecting the 12-month Egyptian calendar. This concept took firm root in both Babylonian/Persian and then Roman cultures. Constantine declared that Christ’s birthday would be December 25 instead of January 6 and by 567 AD, most Christians had adopted this date. Church leaders proclaimed the 12 days from December 25 to Epiphany, January 6, as a sacred, festive season. Nailing down the origins of both the 12-day holiday and what the holiday bread/cake represents is difficult. Christians of different cultures, with a blatant chasm between Eastern and Western branches, celebrate the connected days of festivities; often know as advent, at different times for different periods. The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ opening those little windows in their advent calendars. The modern traditional celebration begins on December 25; Christmas Day ushers in twelve days of celebration, ending only on January 6 with the feast of the Epiphany, while some still choose the fourth Sunday before Christmas as their starting day and buy the celebratory relic accordingly to begin their search for the “prize” inside.

In France, the finder of the Jesus figure or a porcelain bean baked in a cake becomes king or queen for the duration of the holiday period, or the day depending on the province, and gets to wear a crown. Think Quasimodo for a day, then you have to buy next year’s cake. In addition, these beans or baby Jesus figures even have collectible status.

In Italy, the custom morphed into the Panettone, in England and the States the dreaded fruitcake and in Germany the holiday Stollen.

In Spain, it is a bread ring with both a Jesus figurine and a bean. The presentation is a circle like those in Panama. Here it can contain a baby Jesus, a bean or some other trinket. The recipient gets the coronet and pays for the Kings Bread ring. Today it’s usually an ovoid large enough to serve at parties.

In Greece, they often put in a gold coin, perhaps one with a little lesser value today and the traditions there are decidedly different from Western Christianity.

In Mexico, the leavened product is a Kings ring and the discoverer of the baby Jesus within traditionally takes this prize to the church on February 2 for a blessing and later hosts a tamale feed. Mexico holds the Guinness record for a 12 ton, 1200 foot long example that took 3,000 bakers 21,000 man-hours to construct.

In New Orleans, it’s a Kings cake sold to the public for consumption and festive display. A baby Jesus also plays a role here and the cake is usually around from Epiphany until the conclusion of Mardi Gras.  If you get the baby, you buy next year’s cake.

So ….

The Kings cake is circular or ovoid flour based artifact revered and made differently in numerous Christian cultures around the globe.  It often incorporates placing an image of a baby Jesus or some other token inside the construct that, when found by one of the participating celebrants, bestows certain duties or responsibilities.  The bean in the cake custom originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia and it eventually morphed its way into the early Christian Epiphany celebration and feast. The Epiphany is when the gentile world, represented by the Persian Three Kings, became aware of the Christ’s birth.  These three wise men, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, brought gifts of myrrh frankincense and gold, for the baby Jesus. Today the candied fruits, colored icings and hued sugars that garnish the myth-laden cake or bread represent these gifts.

Glenn Gamboa
The Three Sisters