We think of Carnival or Mardi Gras as being a week or so before the beginning of Lent but in some cultures the Twelfth Night of Christmas – January 6th – signals the beginning of Carnival. In many major European centres it began the social season of dinners, dances, masked balls, musicales, new ballets, operas and plays (sometimes all on the same bill). It should then come as no surprise that the French influence meant that this tradition carried over to social life in Louisiana and particularly New Orleans. Epiphany/January 6th/12th Night is the day for Gateau de Roi (King Cake) and the beginning of Carnival .
My friend Cecilia tells me that this year her Carnival began with a slice of King Cake and the first parade of the season by the Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc. The Krewe celebrates both the beginning of Carnival and the birthday of Joan of Arc with an old style walking parade. Their route takes them by the statue of the Saint on Decatur Street (above right) where they stop and sing Happy Birthday to the unofficial patron of New Orleans.
This year was the 11th annual Jeanne d’Arc parade but the custom of parading on the Twelfth Night after Christmas in New Orleans began back in 1870 with the appearance of the Twelfth Night Revellers. The second Krewe to be formed, they celebrated their arrival with an elaborate nine float parade that was quite the equal in splendour to the rival Comus parades. The pageant was followed by a festive gathering at the French Opera House with the usual tableaux vivants and dancing however the Revellers introduced two innovations to the festivities. The first was a grand march led by the Lord of Misrule as the King Cake was processed around the room. The second was the choosing of a Queen of the celebration. The opening march was a great success and became a fixture at most Mardi Gras balls. The second was truly innovative as women had previously been excluded from all but the dancing at these affairs. Though it too was readily adopted by all the societies the initial attempt did not quite go as planned.
The Four Court Fools paraded the huge King Cake into the centre of the floor. When the Cake was prepared a golden bean had been hidden inside and the lady receiving the gleaming legume in her slice of cake was to be hailed as Queen and rule over the evening. There was much anticipation, and no doubt some preening, in the boxes as the ladies waited patiently.
However the court fools were to live up to their name. No doubt because they had overindulged in liquid refreshments, they did not politely pass the slices according to plan. Instead they dropped them in the laps of the stunned recipients. In fact two of the more intoxicated jesters threw cake at the startled ladies in the parterre boxes.
The ladies of the court were, to say the least, appalled at the proceedings and a few fled the room in disgust. As a protest, the lady who received the slice with the bean swallowed it, and the evening ended without a queen being crowned. Misrule had indeed been the order of the day.
The following year, when the court fools were better behaved, Mrs. Emma Butler discovered the golden bean in her slice. The cake had been presented to her in a gentil fashion and Mrs Butler graciously accepted the honour.
The 12th Night Revellers parade and tableaux for 1871 were even more splendid than the year before. Designed by the great Charles Briton it was entitled Mother Goose’s Tea Party. A mixture of floats, costumed marchers and “big heads” it was reported that “when it was found that the pageant was to represent the characters whom Mother Goose has made immortal, the delight of the spectators can better be imagined than described… “. The reporter goes on to say that “each new tableau was greeted with shouts of enthusiastic recognition from the innumerable throng.” Some of that enthusiastic shouts of recognition may have been because being Briton and being Carnival many of the characters made satirical reference to civic, state and national figures – popular and more often otherwise.
These charming sketches by Briton are amongst the earliest that have survived of Mardi Gras parade designs. Any satirical references, and in the years of Reconstruction the parades were a constant source of political comment, are lost to us today. A life click will take you to a slideshow for a closer look.
Our reporter makes no mention of the choosing of a Queen or indeed the good manners of the fools. He does tell us that, “At the Opera House, the tableaux elicited the warmest applause, from one of the most brilliant audiences ever gathered within its walls. The ball which wound up the entertainment was a joyous termination to an event which will ever be pleasantly remembered by all who were present.”