January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, going by the Gregorian calendar. That's the day the Magi -- or the Three Kings, or the Three Wise Men -- arrived in Bethlehem to visit Jesus, according to Christian tradition. Though Epiphany is certainly marked in America by Catholics and Protestants alike (many, but not all, Orthodox Christians in the U.S. go by the Julian calendar, which places Epiphany on January 19), the festivities are nothing compared to those in predominantly Catholic countries, with rich traditions of Epiphany cakes, processions for the Three Kings, and more. Below are some photos from January 6 Epiphany celebrations in France, Mexico, Peru, Poland, and Romania. We'll be back with Epiphany photos from areas following the Julian calendar on January 19, which include midnight plunges into frozen lakes.
Americans may be familiar with the "king cake" of Mardi Gras, the festival that comes at the end of the Epiphany season, just before Lent: the cake is often described as resembling a cinnamon roll, which is a fair enough description if a cinnamon roll were to be sprinkled garishly with green, yellow, and purple. Somewhere in the cake the baker hides a small baby figurine for some poor eater to discover.
In France, la galette des Rois (literally: "the cake of kings") is made of puff pastry and frangipane. Being civilized folk, those French people, they reject eating babies and instead opt to eat Dominique Strauss Kahn. I kid. Different figurines, or even a bean, are put in. Here's a set of figurines from 2011 which does, indeed, include Dominique Strauss Kahn in a lineup of French political figures. Vote on whether you'd be more disturbed to find a plastic infant or a porcelain DSK in your cake in the comments section. (Robert Pratta/Reuters)
Sarkozy samples the frangipane-filled cake. Look at the shine of the glaze on that thing: Let's not let this moment pass without noticing the some well-executed egg wash on that pastry. (François Guillot/Reuters)
Sarkozy cutting an Epiphany cake in 2012. As you can see, the cake is large. It's pretty, though. Almost makes you want to see if your nearest grocery store has a 4-meter square of puff pastry you can haul home and try to bake yourself. Actually, there's a recipe for a homemade, smaller-scale galette des roishere, if you're interested. (Remy de la Mauviniere/Reuters)
Lest you think Sarkozy had too much fun, here's a photo of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, evidently having a very good time with the Epiphany cake as well. Nary an awkward smile in sight: Those are some genuinely pleased Frenchmen. (Reuters)
Let's hop over the Atlantic ocean and several years forward to the present day. Below, people line up in Mexico City to receive roscón de reyes (literally: "king's ring") pastry in a pre-Epiphany celebration on January 3, 2013. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
Here are three men dressed up as the three wise men in Lima on January 6, 2012. Enrique Castro-Mendivil)
Here is the city of Warsaw one-upping Lima by finding a really big, really furry camel for one of its Three Kings to ride. Look at that gorgeous animal. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
In the Romanian village of Pietrosani, Epiphany means a horse race. This is what a horse looks like getting blessed by a priest before a race. You know how skeptical babies look when they're being splashed for their baptism? This horse looks even less pleased. Incidentally, this village is actually Orthodox, not Catholic, but the Romanian Orthodox Church is among the Orthodox churches that use the Revised Julian Calendar, which has been synched with the Gregorian Calendar. Thus the Romanian Orthodox Church currently celebrates Christmas on December 25 and Epiphany on January 6, just the same as the Catholic Church does. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
Good grief. Not just one, but two priests are splashing this horse with water. If I were this horse, I would consider converting to Protestantism post-haste. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
Off to the races ... (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
This image makes it a little clearer that the riders are not using saddles and stirrups--they're riding bareback, without so much as a blanket. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
Apparently even children in this village can ride bareback. Romanian kids get to have all the fun. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.