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Unboxing the story behind the King Cake

“January 6th celebrates the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. And it’s an ancient feast day," that dates back to 4th century Europe.

HOUSTON — King cakes are selling out at bakeries across Houston. El Bolillo boxed 6,000 of the multi-color round cakes in preparation for a record-setting January 6th.  The cakes, which are called ‘Roscas de Reyes’ in Spanish are part of a tradition that dates back to 4th century Europe.

“We have to set up a drive thru, a convenience for the people,” said El Bolillo Bakery owner Joel Garza. 

Because of climbing COVID-19 cases, the Houston-area business is selling King cakes curbside. The bakery’s business is predominantly Catholic or Christian Latinos.

Father Paul English CSB, a Chaplain at the University of St. Thomas- Houston, helps to explain the history of the holiday that comes 12 days after Christmas.

 “January 6th celebrates the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. And it’s an ancient feast day," he said. "The round cakes on the honor day three wise men who followed a star in search of a new king of Israel, came upon a baby Jesus."

“The Christian community recognizes that this is a day when a kind of a light dawns,” said Fr. English who explained that the three men gifted the newborn a trio of gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, which is why January 6th is, “often a second time of giving gifts.”

Tradition calls for a porcelain or plastic baby figurine to be baked in. 

“So whoever gets that baby in the cake, in the slice they receive, is a special kid that day,” said English. “In some traditions, that person is the one that has to throw the next party.”

Today marks the end of the Christmas season for Catholics and the start of the Epiphany or Carnival season in New Orleans. 

“So this is just the beginning for us,” said Brandon Carpenter, a district manager for Three Brothers Bakery.

Three Brother’s is set to sell their famous cakes from now through Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. The Ellison family plans to indulge. 

“We get a king cake on epiphany and then just keep buying them until Lent,” said Andrew Ellison.

January 6th is an opportunity to tap into tradition and lean into faith. 

“You know, in these difficult times, and they really are these days, whether you look simply at the pandemic or at our upheaval in our political system,” said English. ”We need to look to something more than just stable. We need to look to something divine.”

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