Never has a simple, innocent date developed such diverse meanings. That date is January 6. For 2,000 years or so it has been known as Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany. The date is generally acknowledged as the last day of the Christmas season, the 12th day. In some cultures, January 6 is recognized as the time of the arrival of the three wise men, or “the magi.” Different places celebrate the date in different ways (some just barely) but not in New Orleans, because here the last day of Christmas is the beginning of the Carnival season. On that evening the Phunny Phorty Phellows ride a streetcar to announce Mardi Gras’ prelude. There is music echoing along the path of the Phellows. King cakes make their debut on that day tempting us with their injected filings through Ash Wednesday. There are parties around town but none so eloquent as the ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers who since 1870 have been selecting their Queen from a ceremonial king cake.
Shakespeare wrote a play called “Twelfth Night.” Being by Shakespeare the play had many famous lines, including “If music be the food of love, play on.” That is worthy advice as the Storyville Stompers inside the streetcar play on and somewhere around town you may hear Al Johnson’s rollicking “Carnival Time”:
All because it’s Carnival Ti-i-ime
Whoa, it’s Carnival Time
Oh well, it’s Carnival Time
And everybody’s drinkin’ wine
And at the Revelers ball, the king, by tradition known as the Lord of Misrule, and his newly anointed queen lead a procession graced by the noble sounds of Aida’s “Grand Mach.”
New Orleans is blessed because just when the rest of the world begins to experience post-Christmas let down, the same day brings early Carnival buildup.
But then there is the other January 6, a bad moment that struck like snake fangs. On January 6, 2021 there was the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Within the sacred grounds of a nation that is the guardian of democracy, rioters all of whom must have skipped their civics classes tried to degrade the constitution and the nation for which it stood.
Many who were there that day have since been jailed; many others are awaiting sentencing. The disorder tarnished a date associated with spirituality and joy. As the case unwinds, we will be hearing reports from congress’s investigative “January 6 Committee.” Like Franklin Roosevelt said of Dec. 7, 1941, the date will “live in infamy.”
New Orleans at least preserved the date’s dignity though we may need to distinguish the good January 6 from the evil one. We can always hope for our own epiphany and that the world will be filled with more wise men. May we all feast on the food of love.