Christians all over the world celebrate on the Sixth of January. While some parts of the Christian world may differ on dates, January 6th is usually recognized as the Feast of the Epiphany, the day that the Magi, or Three Wise Men, visited the Christ Child. In most of Christendom, Epiphany marks the end of the holiday season. The Christmas tree is taken down, the decorations stored away for another year, and life goes on.
Except in New Orleans.
Epiphany celebrations are also known as “Twelfth Night” celebrations because January 6th is the “Twelfth Day of Christmas.” There is some confusion over whether Christmas Day is the “first day of Christmas” or Boxing Day (December 26th) is the “first day.” Another variation in the celebrations is whether or not Twelfth Night happens on the night of January 5th or 6th. This confusion results from the date convention of Medieval Europe where a “day” begins on the night before.
As the sun sets on January 6th and the rest of the world formally gets back to normal life, New Orleanians merely shift the focus of our celebrating. The Christmas season is over, and the Carnival season begins.
A bit of explanation is in order here: One has to keep in mind that there was hardly any celebrating done before Christmas before our now-very-secular society. The four weeks prior to Christmas are the liturgical season of Advent, a time of fasting and penance to prepare for Christ’s birth. With the season of Advent largely ignored in modern society, pre-Christmas celebrations lead to post-Christmas and New Year’s parties, and that turns into Carnival time.
Yes, it makes it look like New Orleanians party all the time. No, we don’t care.
The origins of the Twelfth Night celebration go back to pre-Christian traditions in Europe. The Roman winter celebrations of Saturnalia and the Celtic Yule feasts were continued even after Christianity began to dominate in the region. Many Celts believe in the tradition of the “Sacred King” who would be sacrificed to the land. His spilled blood anointed and fertilized the land. Catholic priests preaching the Gospels to the Celts discouraged such sacrifices, but allowed the people to continue their celebrations. The “Sacred King” to be sacrificed became the “Lord of Misrule,” who ruled over the village/tribe for the celebration. This notion that one of the commoners could rule was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down.
The common thread to these celebrations is in how the “King” or “Lord” was chosen. A fancy bread or cake was baked, and all the eligible men in the village would get a piece. In one of those pieces would be a gold or silver bean. Whomever got the bean ruled over the celebration. As sacrifices no longer took place, the ruler of Twelfth Night was required to bake a cake or dessert for the next big celebration, Candlemas (Imbolc) on February 2nd. (In Mexico, for example, the tradition is that whomever gets the bean on Twelfth Night makes the tamales for Candlemas.)
There are numerous literary references to Epiphany celebrations, the most famous being Shakespeare’s play, “Twelfth Night .” The Celtic tradition continued in Britain, Ireland, France and Spain, with variations reflecting the culture and cuisine of each region.
Fast forward to New Orleans under French and Spanish rule. No doubt the traditions of “La galette des Rois” (French) and “rosca de reyes” (Spanish) were observed in the Creole households of the Vieux Carre and Creole faubourgs. After the Mystick Krewe of Comus revived public celebration of Mardi Gras with their parade in 1857, it wasn’t long before another group of New Orleanians took the celebration of King’s Day public. The Twelfth Night Revelers added English-rooted traditions, naming their king the “Lord of Misrule.” TNR first paraded through the streets of New Orleans in 1870, ending their evening with a tableau bal masque. At their ball, TNR brought out a large king cake, which was sliced up and served to the ladies in attendance.
The gold bean was lost that year, but the krewe kept a closer eye on the bean in future years, to make sure their choices for the queen and her court were more formal. TNR paraded until 1878, then only held a ball. The krewe underwent a few re-organization periods before settling down in the 1890s. In modern times, the king cake is a wooden model, brought out by “bakers” (members of the crew) and “junior cooks” (their sons and grandsons). Single ladies open drawers in the “cake” to retrieve the gold and silver beans. With that revelation, Carnival season is formally opened.
TNR aren’t the only New Orleanians formally celebrating on January 6th. While the members of TNR and their ladies share an Epiphany feast at Restaurant Antoine, members of the Phunny Phorty Phellows gather at the Carrollton Station streetcar barn for their annual ride down St. Charles Avenue. After a bit of a hiatus from the uptown line (due to the storm) the PPP are back to riding the green Perley A. Thomas streetcars down St. Charles, announcing to one and all that Carnival has begun.
Meanwhile, the rest of us eat cake. King Cake, that is.
The New Orleans king cake “went commercial” in the 1930s, with a number of bakeries selling the treats, including a bean. In the late 1940s and 1950s, after the Great Depression and WWII, people in the city had a bit more to celebrate, so many families would have “king cake parties” for their children and their friends. Like the Mexicans who made the tamales for Candlemas, whomever got the bean in the king cake would give the following week’s party.
Haydel’s bakery was one of the first to replace the bean with a ceramic baby doll. Plastic babies replaced the ceramic in the 1960s and are the regular treat in the cake ever since. Nowadays, bakeries make thousands of king cakes every year, shipping them all over the world. It seems like almost every grocery store bakery department does king cakes, and that’s a wondeful thing.
Happy Twelfth Night! Where do you get your king cake? What are you family’s Twelfth Night traditions? Tell us in the comment section.
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