Twelfth Night is more than just a play written by William Shakespeare. It marks the coming of the Epiphany – the day the Three Kings arrived to witness the Baby Jesus. It is highlighted by the song “12 Days of Christmas.”
Most people know that Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday represents the end of the Mardi Gras season. But many don’t realize that Twelfth Night – January 6th – marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season.
You see, Mardi Gras, like Christmas, is a whole season – not just one day. That being said, Fat Tuesday is the biggest day of celebration, and the date it falls on moves around. You’ll find that Fat Tuesday can be any Tuesday between Feb. 3 and March 9. Mardi Gras, or its more Pagan name, Carnival, starts its celebration on January 6th, the Twelfth Night, and picks up speed through midnight on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
The origins of Mardi Gras in America go back to 1699, nearly twenty years before New Orleans was established, and can be traced to medieval Europe, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th century to the French House of the Bourbons, hence Bourbon Street.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or “flambeaux,” held by slaves lit the way for the krewe’s members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity. By the way, a krewe is an organization that puts on a parade or ball for the Carnival season (more on parades later).
There is one tradition that you will see throughout the entirety of the Mardi Gras season, and that is the king cake. The most simple version, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of twisted cinnamon roll-style dough topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Mardi Gras colors) with food coloring. King cakes may also be filled with additional foodstuffs- the most common being cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry.
Traditionally, a small plastic or porcelain baby is hidden into the king cake. Originally, the baby was placed into the cake to symbolize baby Jesus.
Today, the baby symbolizes luck and prosperity to whoever finds it in his/her slice of cake. In some traditions, the finder of the baby is designated “king” or “queen” for the evening. That person is also responsible for purchasing next year’s cake, or for throwing the next Mardi Gras party.
We are now 52 days until Mardi Gras 2017…
Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler!!
* Some excerpts taken from mardigrasneworleans.com