King's Ball

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Coordinates: 37°58′37″N 90°02′55″W / 37.97696°N 90.048672°W / 37.97696; -90.048672

The King's Ball - La fête des rois (or Festival of the [Three] Kings - Twelfth-Night)

Dance in the Château St. Louis, Quebec (1801).
Artist: George Heriot (ca. 1759-1839)
Watercolor over pencil
National Archives of Canada, Ottawa (Accession No. 1989-472-1)

The 250-year-old tradition of the King’s Ball was brought to the New World by Catholic émigrés, who measured the passing of time in two ways – by agricultural cycles, and the Church’s religious calendar. Lent, the weeks preceding Easter, had special importance for them as a period of repentance and atonement.

For the settlers of New France, however, even the onset of so solemn a season was a good excuse for a party. The colonial residents of Ste. Genevieve, Missourihabitants, Indians, and even slaves, literally had themselves a ball the last weekend before Lent.

As early as the first half of the 16th century, French records tell of a ball that was the social event of the year. The event included boisterous ceremonies in which a temporary monarch was selected by chance.

Early diarists recorded that the good citizens of Ste. Genevieve began preparations days before the ball – cleaning, baking, and cooking. Bouillabaise simmered over wood fires, and the heady scent of decanting wine filled the houses in Le Vieux Village (the Old Town).

Those who lived outside the settlement proper began to arrive in town at midday, rest a while, then ready themselves for the evening’s activities. The parties lasted throughout the night and into the next day, when a late morning breakfast was served.

Music, dancing and fine food were always important elements of the event. But the centerpiece of the annual celebration was the selection of the royal personage.

Generally, a dried bean was baked into La Galette des Rois (literally translated, the cake of kings or, a special cake). All the men in attendance were served a slice. The one who found the bean in his cake was crowned Le Roi (the King) of the festivities. The new king selected his queen, and they reigned over the year’s festivities in Ste. Genevieve.

Some scholars speculate that the King’s Ball has its roots in fertility rites that date from prehistory. The bean was a symbol of potential life; the king was, perhaps, a variation of the Green Man, a figure prevalent in pagan religious practices, who was often sacrificed to assure a good crop.

By the 18th century, a Christian substitute had been found for the formerly ubiquitous bean. A tiny figure representing the Christ child was secreted in the cake instead (perhaps to remove any suggestion of the pagan origins of the practice). Happily, the colonial French required no more of their King than that he lead them in revelry. And that he did.

Note: Article edited from the Ste. Genevieve Herald newspaper.

In the old French towns of Upper Louisiana, at the feast of Epiphany, on Twelfth Night a cake was served to the ladies, into which had been kneaded, before the baking, four beans. Each lady whose slice of cake contained a bean became a queen of the revels, and she in turn chose, a gentleman to be her king, signifying her preference by presenting him a bouquet. The four kings thus chosen and duly proclaimed became the patrons of the first of a series of old-time entertainments known as the "kings' balls." At the Twelfth Night festival the time was fixed for the first of these balls, and at the close of this ball the queens selected four more kings, who, in turn, proclaimed four new queens for the next ball. The series of festivities thus inaugurated lasted until Shrove Tuesday and the carnival. All who were present at the Twelfth Night festivities were expected to attend the king's balls without further bidding.[1]

About the 6th of January, in each year, which is called Le Jour de Rais, a party is given, and four beans are baked in a large cake; this cake is distributed amongst the gentlemen, and each one who receives a bean, is proclaimed king. These four kings are to give the next ball. These are called "king balls." These kings select each one a queen, and make her a suitable present. They arrange all things necessary for the dancing party.

In these merry parties, no set supper is indulged in. They go there not to eat, but to be and make merry. They have refreshments of cake and coffee served round at proper intervals. Sometimes bouillon, as the French call it, takes the place of coffee. Toward the close of the party, the old queens select each one a new king, and kisses him to qualify him into office; then each new king chooses his new queen, and goes thro' the ceremony as before. In this manner the king balls are kept up all the carnaval.

Note: "Bouillabaise simmered over wood fires" was more accurately said to be Bouillon rather than Bouillabaise.


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri by Howard Louis Conrad
  2. ^ The Pioneer History of Illinois by John Reynolds

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