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NOLA History: Reveling on Twelfth Night

The traditional Twelfth Night celebration kicks off the Carnival season with krewes and king cakes on January 6.

Invitation to the 1884 bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers. (Public domain image)

While some parts of the Christian world may differ on dates, January 6 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.

Three Wise Men Twelfth Night
These three guys start Mardi Gras every year. No, really. (Photo via grosvenor.co.uk)

Except in New Orleans.

As the sun sets on January 6, 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 prior to our now-very-secular society, there was hardly any celebrating before Christmas.

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 these days in modern society, pre-Christmas celebrations lead to post-Christmas and New Year’s parties, and that turns into Carnival time.

The date of Fat Tuesday may vary, but we always start Carnival on Twelfth Night. On streetcars, of course. (Courtesy photo)

Yes, it makes it look like New Orleanians party all the time. No, we don’t care.

Twelfth Night History

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, for example, believed in the tradition of the “Sacred King,” who would be sacrificed to the land. His spilled blood anointed and fertilized the land. Catholic priests discouraged such sacrifices but allowed the Celts to continue their celebrations. The “Sacred King” softened to become the “Lord of Misrule,” who ruled over the village or tribe for the celebration. This notion — that a commoner could rule, however briefly — was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down.

A common thread to these celebrations is 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. Whoever got the bean became king or lord. In turn, they were required to bake a cake or dessert for the next big celebration.

The notion — that a commoner could rule, however briefly — was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down.

Mavolio Shakespear's Twelfth Night
Malvolio from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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 — and eventually New Orleans — with variations reflecting the culture and cuisine of each region.

Establishing Twelfth Night Traditions in NOLA

Invitation to the 1884 bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers. (Public domain image)

After the Mystick Krewe of Comus revived public celebration of Mardi Gras with their parade in 1857, another group of New Orleanians followed. The Twelfth Night Revelers (TNR) added English-rooted traditions to their celebrations, 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 with a gold bean inside that was sliced up and served to the ladies in attendance.

The “Twelfth Night Revelers Room” at Antoine’s Restaurant. Note the gold bean. (Photo: Edward Branley)

The gold bean was lost that year, but the krewe kept a closer eye on it in future years. TNR paraded until 1878, then only held a ball. The krewe underwent a few re-organization periods before settling down in the 1890s. Nowadays, 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.

Modern Twelfth Night Revelry: Parades and King Cakes

Preparing the streetcars for the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows on Twelfth Night. (Photo courtesy Carlos “Froggy” May)

While the members of TNR and their ladies share an Epiphany feast at Antoine’s, members of the Phunny Phorty Phellows ride the streetcars down St. Charles Avenue, announcing to one and all that Carnival has begun. In the French Quarter, the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc parades to commemorate Joan of Arc’s birthday and Twelfth night all at once.

As for the rest of us? We eat cake. King Cake, that is.

King Cake New Orleans Mardi Gras
Modern, New Orleans-style king cake. Yum. (Courtesy photo)

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 flexibility to celebrate. Many families would have king cake parties for their children and their friends. Whoever got the bean in the king cake would give the following week’s party, a tradition harking back to the earliest Twelfth Night celebrations and carried on by the general idea that if you get the bean or the baby in your slice, you’re on the hook for the next king cake (here are a few ideas).

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 wonderful thing.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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A finished home from the St. Bernard Project. (Photo via St. Bernard Project on Facebook)
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