The king cake has a deep historical significance, but today it’s associated with celebrations and modern traditions. Find out what it means if you're the one who discovers the baby!

By Emily VanSchmus / BHG.com
March 05, 2019
Getty Images/iStockphoto

This story originally appeared on BHG.com.

Fat Tuesday is almost upon us, meaning you’re likely to be served a colorful piece of cake. King cakes, either purchased or homemade, are the traditional dessert served at a Mardi Gras party, but you may be wondering why there's a tiny plastic baby hidden in the cake.

The tradition dates back more than 2,000 years, and there’s an interesting story behind how the baby made its way into the cake.

So what is a king cake, anyway?

The tradition of making and serving king cakes actually dates all the way back to the origins of Mardi Gras itself. While you might associate Mardi Gras with a day of parades and parties, it’s actually part of a larger season that lasts for months.

Today, Mardi Gras (also known as Carnival) is typically celebrated with two weeks of festivities that lead up to the main event on Fat Tuesday, but the official season of Mardi Gras begins on January 6—known as Epiphany in the Christian tradition. Epiphany is celebrated on the 12th day after Christmas, when the three kings are said to have actually made it to see baby Jesus—which is why the dessert is called ‘king’ cake, and why there’s a tiny baby hidden inside.

According to Manny Randazzo King Cakesthis link opens in a new tab, a bakery voted one of New Orleans’ top king cake makers, the king cake tradition was brought to America from France in the 1870s—but there hasn’t always been a baby inside. Today, you’re likely to find a plastic baby in your cake, but since tiny dolls weren't always widely available, coins and beans have made appearances inside the cake as well.

In the 1940s, a baker named Donald Entringer solidified the baby-in-the-cake traditionthis link opens in a new tab when a traveling salesman approached him with an offering of small porcelain dolls. Entringer began baking the porcelain dolls into his king cakes and the tradition was born. When he ran out of the ceramic babies, he followed the lead of his fellow New Orleans bakeries and switched to plastic babies—and bakers haven’t looked back since.

What does it mean if you find the baby?

When a king cake is served at a Mardi Gras celebration, everyone wants to know who was served the slice with the baby—but what does it mean if you find one? Tradition dictates that finding the baby in your cake symbolizes luck and prosperity, and the finder becomes the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of the evening.

The person who hosts the Mardi Gras party buys or makes the king cake, and since whoever finds the baby is said to be prosperous in the coming year, they take on the responsibility of providing the king cake for the next year.

Of course, as the host, you have the option to forgo the king cake tradition the next year—but what’s the fun in that?

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