January 6 to most people is Epiphany, but in New Orleans it is Twelfth Night, the beginning of the Carnival season. We are going to be talking a lot about Mardi Gras in the next couple of weeks, so I wanted to give you some background.
Although they are often used interchangeably, Carnival is a season culminating on Mardi Gras day. The dates are determined by the church calendar – Mardi Gras is always the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. (Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter excluding Sundays.) Since the date of Easter varies according to moon phases, the possible dates for Mardi Gras also vary, from as early as February 3 to as late as March 9. It falls on the early side this year, February 12.
“Mardi gras” is French for Fat Tuesday, referring to the last day of eating rich foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. In New Orleans we take this concept to the exponential, having a blow out period of celebration before retreating to a more subdued pace. The most public aspect of the Carnival season is the parades, which generally start two weekends before Mardi Gras. (We are hosting the Superbowl this year, which falls on a parade weekend, so the schedule is a little different.) But a lot is going on in the background, with many organizations hosting carnival balls and other events. We’ll give you a peek into some of these.
Enough background – let the party begin! The Phunny Phorty Phellows – the Heralds of Carnival – kicked it off last night with their traditional streetcar ride down St. Charles Avenue. Thirty years ago, a group revived an old organization that had been active from 1878-98. I had the best intentions of going out to watch, but it was cold and drizzly, so I’ll show you some photos courtesy of the Times Picayune. You can view more pictures here.
On a much more private note, the Twelfth Night organization held their carnival ball over the weekend. The key attraction is the Cake Walk, where unmarried ladies promenade and are handed a little box. Most contain a piece of cake, but there are beans in a few of the boxes. The lucky ladies with silver beans become maids in the court, while the one with the gold bean is crowned the queen. (Perhaps someone tips them off, because they all are wear white dresses.)
If this wasn’t enough, Joan of Arc’s birthday also happens to fall on Twelfth Night. It would have been number 601. You guessed it – we honored the occasion with a parade.
Stay tuned – a lot more Mardi Gras to come.