The Three Kings, or Magi, have a wonderful mythology about them. The Gospel of Matthew is the only one that mentions them, and very vaguely as “wise men from the East.” No names, no number, although three is what history has settled on, unless you’re Syrian, and then there’s 12.
Tradition says their names were Balthasar, King of Arabia, who gave frankincense; Caspar, King of India, who gave myrrh; and Melchior, King of Persia, who gave gold. In Spanish speaking countries, kids have to wait till the Feast of the Epiphany to get their gifts, brought by the three kings. Here, in the states, in New Orleans, the King Cake makes its first appearance on January 6, so they can avoid choking on the plastic baby Jesus hidden inside.
One particular interesting legend about the Kings’ lives after adoring the baby Jesus, and dropping off the first Christmas gifts, takes us to the Alsace Lorraine region – a disputed region on the border of France and Germany that changed hands 7 times between 1871 and 1920. Needless to say their culture is a hybrid mix of French and German.
In this region, there is a cake called the Kugelhopf (what we call a bundt cake in America) that is said to have been introduced by the Magi, who in addition to being wise scholars, were also incredibly ingenious bakers, and very early risers.
The story goes that they were returning from the MIddle East and were near the Alsatian village of Ribeauville and were caught in a bad storm. The knocked on the door of one poor Mr. Kugel, who took them in and showed them great hospitality, despite his meagerness. The next morning, eager to continue their journey through Germany (why they were travelling through Germany, since they were from the East is puzzling, but bear with me for the story….) they either made the mold from their precious metals, or made the first Kugelhopf cake in the mold that Mr Kugel had in his house.
The cake was a rich yeasted cake with raisins, fruits, nuts, and sometimes booze. There is a long tradition of decorated Alsatian earthenware pottery in the region and that’s what kugelhopfs are made from today. They are said to resemble the crown of the three kings. Some Alsatian chefs say you cannot produce a good kugelhopf until it has been baked in the same pan for 15 years. That’s a lot of throwaway kugelhopfs!
It’s a wonderful legend for the Christmas season, and the cake is super popular in Alsace. But the historical way the cake made it to the region is probably through King Stanislaus of Poland, who abdicated his throne and in 1737 and received the province of Lorainne, in Alsace, as a consolation prize. The Austrians had supposedly invented the cake to celebrate their victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1683, and it was made to resemble the Turbans worn by the Turks.
If you want to try yourself, Williams Sonoma makes a non stick kugelhopf pan. Just make sure it’s not Teflon, if you’ve seen the movie Dark Waters!
That is a very interesting new story. Can I have your permission to share it on a Facebook group called Prussian Genealogy / Ahnenforschung in Preussen – Roots, DNA & History?