How the King Cake Tradition Began—and Why There's a Plastic Baby

Find out what it means if you're the one who discovers the baby in your slice of cake!

Fat Tuesday falls each year on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent. Tradition is you're likely to be served a colorful piece of King cake in celebration of Mardi Gras. King cakes, either purchased or homemade, are the traditional dessert served at a Mardi Gras party. You may be wondering why there's a tiny plastic baby hidden in the cake.

The tradition dates back hundreds of years—and there's an interesting story behind how the baby made its way into the cake. The practice of making and serving king cakes actually dates all the way back to the origins of Mardi Gras itself, which was first celebrated in America in 1699, but baking a baby into the cake wasn't common practice until the 1800s.

Before you don your beads or fire up that delicious batch of gumbo, arm yourself with the details about why there may be a small baby in your slice of cake and what it means if you're the one who finds it. Hint: It's good luck!

illustration of a small plastic baby in a piece of King cake

BHG / Hugo Lin

What Is a King Cake?

The tradition of making and serving king cakes dates 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. The arrival of the three kings is also the reason it's tradition to leave your Christmas tree up through January 6.

According to Manny Randazzo King Cakes, 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 cakes as well.

In the 1940s, a baker named Donald Entringer solidified the baby-in-the-cake tradition when a traveling salesman approached him with an offering of small porcelain dolls. Entringer began baking the porcelain dolls into his king cakes to symbolize baby Jesus, 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 It Means 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?

How to Put a Baby In Your King Cake

If you're in charge of making the king cake this year, here's how to get the baby into the cake. First, use our easy king cake recipe to make and decorate your cake. Since most of the traditional baby figurines these days are made from plastic, we don't recommend putting the baby in before baking. Instead, make a small hole in the bottom of the cake once it's cool and place a small plastic baby ($8 for 6, Walmart) inside.

Or, you can wait until the cake is sliced and hide the baby in one of the pieces before the cake is served. And that way, you won't accidentally hit the baby with your knife while you're slicing!

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