Twelfth Night -- The Official Opening of the Carnival Season

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The Feast of the Epiphany is a day of closure for most Christians in the United States. It’s traditionally the day when the visit to the Christ Child by the Three Wise Men is celebrated, marking the end of the Christmas season. The tree and decorations come down, and household life returns to a more normal routine, as the kids go back to school until Easter break.

The scenario is a little bit different in New Orleans. While the rest of the country is breathing a collective sigh of relief that the holidays are over, New Orleanians are just getting their second wind to begin The Big Party -- Carnival. It all begins on Twelfth Night, January 6th, with the bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers, and the Uptown streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows.

The Twelfth Night Revelers have held the official kick-off to the Carnival season since January 6, 1870. Theirs is not the traditional tableau-style ball held by other krewes. The members of the krewe mask, but the centerpiece of the celebration is the the ladies of the court are selected. A giant king cake is rolled out onto the floor of the ballroom, and the ladies selected to be maids of the court all gather ‘round. Each is given a piece of the cake, and those pieces contain one gold and several silver beans. The young lady who receives the gold bean is named the queen, and the others become the maids of the court. The cake originally was a traditional king cake, but the logistics of making sure that the right lady was chosen queen prompted the krewe to switch to a wooden replica what looks more like a classic wedding cake. This giant replica is wheeled out onto the floor by masked krewe members who are dressed like bakers, all in white with chef’s hats on their heads. The bottom layer of the cake has small drawers in it, and the ladies of the court are arranged around the cake, each one in front of a drawer. They open the drawers and pull out their beans. From a strictly fashion standpoint, the queen of Twelfth Night is not as well- dressed as her counterparts from other krewes; all of the court wear simple white dresses, since they don’t know which one will lead the way that evening. After the queen and court are selected, the ball proceeds in the traditional manner, with presentations to the king and queen, call-out dances, then general dancing. The ball itself ends around midnight, but the parties continue well into the morning.

While the men of the Twelfth Night Revelers are still getting dressed for their ball, which begins promptly at 9:00pm, the Phunny Phorty Phellows are already rolling on their streetcar ride from the car barn on Willow street down Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues to Canal Street, then back to the barn. The Phunny Phorty Phellows is a group of primarily thirty- and forty-something folks who decided some years ago to renew the tradition of riding through the streets announcing that the Carnival season has begun. The Twelfth Night Revelers’ ball is a private, invitation-only affair; the Phunny Phorty Phellows ride the streetcar route hollering out at those they meet along the way. Of course, there’s no rule that says that one cannot imbibe a bit of the grape while riding along the streetcar route (there’s a designated driver, after all), so the Phellows do indeed have a merry time.

By the time the streetcar is parked back in the barn, the Phellows (there are lots of women “Phellows,” by the way--no sexist organization this one) have disembarked, and the Twelfth Night Revelers have chosen their queen, the rest of us are counting the days to our krewe’s functions, the first king cake someone brings to the office, or the first parade in our neighborhoods. By day, New Orleans is more-or-less a normal place to live, but by night, the city won’t be calm and quiet until Ash Wednesday.

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The Feast of the Epiphany