True New Orleanians never have to worry about post-Christmas letdown. That’s because, to most of the world, the the day that is the twelfth and final day of Christmas is recognized locally as Twelfth Night, the first day of the Carnival season. Quite literally, Carnival begins at the moment when Christmas ends. In other places, people have long ditched their Christmas trees by January 6, but in New Orleans the trees stand, at least until that date, when their sagging limbs and shedding needles seem unable to contain the old season any longer. In places where Carnival is not practiced, Twelfth Night is just another winter evening, but in New Orleans, the night is alive with subtle native rituals that are still spared the gaudiness and encroaching commercialism found as the season reaches its end on Mardi Gras Day.
For over a century and a half, The Twelfth Night Revelers have held their society ball on that evening, quietly and privately recognizing the season. On that same evening, a group called the Phunny Phorty Phellows has, for nearly four decades, taken to a streetcar. The banners tied to the side announce to the world, or at least to those waiting for a trolley, that “It’s Carnival Time!” Watching for TV news coverage of the ride has become (for some people) the harbinger of the season. As Carnival has grown and become marketed and manipulated, some of the mystery, magic and spontaneity have been lost. But in the dawning hours of each Carnival season, the spirit manifests itself. For several years, the Phellows had experienced that spirit in terms of three to four mystery maskers who appeared at the spot where their ride begins. The maskers wore full-face masks and overcoats. They carried signs with tongue-in-cheek messages about the Carnival season. None of the Phellows have been able to identify the maskers. Once the streetcar leaves, the maskers disappear, only to reappear at different spots along the route.
Carnival has suffered losses through the years, but a city with endangered traditions at least has more soul that a city with no traditions at all. Among those traditions is the king cake. Carnival’s beginning of Twelfth Night is a fixed date, but its ending, midnight on Mardi Gras, is movable. This year, Mardi Gras is March 1, which means the season will last almost two months. The king cakes tend to show up most everywhere during the season. Once they were baked so dry and undistinguished that they were easy to ignore; now they are injected with various flavors of globby stuff that make a bust out of New Years diet resolutions. Few confections are as rich in rituals as they are in calories.
For the Twelfth Night Revelers (known simply as “TNR” to society insiders), slices from a mock king cake are served to the waiting debutantes. Each slice has a silver bean, except one, delivered to the girl who must feign surprise as the gold bean within is her sign that she is Queen.
For the Phellows, wobbling along on a streetcar, real king cakes are used to determine the royalty for that year. One year the Queen-select was so excited that, after the ride, she called her father long distance to announce the news. The last time the father had heard from the daughter was when she had called to complain that the pipes in her home had been broken by a recent freeze. On this evening of Twelfth Night, the old man, not used to the ways of New Orleans, seemed confused by his daughter’s announcement. “Oh, so you’re clean?” he replied. “No,” the daughter replied,”‘I didn’t say I’m clean, I said I’m Queen.”
Pity those places where on January 6, it is more important to be clean than to be Queen. In New Orleans we know better.
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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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