Let Us Eat Cake!
Two separate groups kick off Carnival in the spirit of the season.
An 1884 invitation to the Twelfth Night Revelers’ masked ball. The theme of that year’s ball and parade was “The Kingdom of Flowers.” Image courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library. It and others like it can be found in the Carnival Collection of the Louisiana Division. In September of 1961, NASA selected the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East as its site to produce rocket ships. Columbia for the inaugural flight of the space shuttle two years later.
What most people would consider just another night, New Orleanians see as a chance to celebrate – with cake!
Twelfth Night (elsewhere known simply as January 6) is the official start of Carnival Season. It is time for the first King Cake of the year, and for balls and masking and streetcar riding.
One of Carnival’s oldest institutions is The Twelfth Night Revelers, who debuted in 1870, opening Carnival with an elaborate 16-float parade and lavish ball led by the Lord of Misrule. Though the parading only lasted for a few years, the elegant pageantry of the balls – from the gilded invitations to the passing of the golden bean inside a slice of King Cake to mark that year’s queen – has continued, making them the second oldest active Carnival Krewe in New Orleans.
A less structured group formed around the same time. Founded in 1878, the Phunny Phorty Phellows originally followed Rex on Mardi Gras day. After parading on and off until 1898, they disbanded altogether. In 1981, the PPP was resurrected, and in ’82, they began a tradition that still carries on: the masked and costumed streetcar ride that announces: “It’s Carnival Time!” The PPP divvy up their King Cake, letting it decide the royalty, and ride the streetcar, accompanied by the Storyville Stompers. The night ends with the Coronation Ball, always with musical entertainment from Benny Grunch and the Bunch.
At the same time the raucous streetcar is making its way down the tracks, beads tossed to the crowds of onlookers, the Twelfth Night Revelers hold their graceful, private ball. Both traditions mark the start of Carnival in ways only New Orleans can.