No Ordinary Time Tuesday, Jan 6 2015 

Haydel's King Cake, Super Bowl, 2010.

Haydel’s King Cake, Super Bowl, 2010.

Today is the Epiphany, which for Catholics marks the end of the Advent/Christmas season. Trees on the curb by December 26th notwithstanding. The period following the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday following Epiphany) and the beginning of Lent is called Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar. So church-wise, there will not be a whole lot going on.

However, in New Orleans and in most Catholic-infused cultures, Epiphany marks both the end of Christmas and the beginning of the Carnival season; that is, the season ending with Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, the day of celebration before Ash Wednesday and the solemnity of Lent. So Christmas candles are replaced by King Cakes, while shopping and gift-giving and caroling are replaced by dances, masked balls, and parades.

Joan of Arc Parade, January 2015.

Joan of Arc Parade, January 2015.

So today, in addition to the first King Cakes of the Carnival season (Haydel’s Bakery had Uber delivering them all day), there was the Joan of Arc parade in the French Quarter. And Uptown, the Phunny Phorty Phellows commandeered the St. Charles streetcar line for an evening of frivolity. And as is true every year, this is just the beginning. Goodbye Christmas; welcome to Carnival.

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Al “Carnival Time” Carson Monday, Jan 6 2014 

Today is Epiphany, which marks the start of the carnival season. In recognition of the season, one of the mainstays of New Orleans music. From his induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

Carnival 2014 Sunday, Jan 5 2014 

Epiphany_WordleTomorrow is January 6th, the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas. It comes from the Greek, epiphaneia, or manifestation, the moment Christ was revealed to the Gentiles as represented by the Three Magi. And in much of the Catholic world, which certainly includes New Orleans, it marks the beginning of Carnival.

Carnival is the period between the end of the Christmas season and beginning of Lent, so this year it runs from January 6th through Mardi Gras, which this year falls on March 4th. In fact, the timing of Mardi Gras means that Carnival will run for 58 days, which is just a few days short of the longest it can be. Nevertheless, the festivities come to a raucous conclusion over the days leading up to and including Mardi Gras. Immediately following, at midnight to be exact, comes Ash Wednesday and the more somber, reflective season of Lent.

Phunny-Phorty-Phellows-RouteIn between the Epiphany and “Trash Wednesday,” the Roman Catholic Church returns to “Ordinary Time,” but in New Orleans, it is anything but ordinary. While most folks are aware of the Mardi Gras parades leading up to Mardi Gras itself, Carnival also features numerous dances, masked balls, and debutante coming out parties. And even though most krewes and social clubs parade over the days leading up to Mardi Gras, there are some parades sprinkled throughout the season. In fact, on Epiphany itself, the members of the Phunny Phorty Phellows, the “Heralds of Carnival,” will mask and take over the St. Charles Streetcar Line to mark the beginning of the festivities.

So cut the king cake, break out the beads, and get ready for the Carnival season.

Of Kings and Carnival Saturday, Jan 5 2013 

In much of the United States, Christmas is over. Christmas trees on the curb the morning of December 6th.  However, according to the Romans Catholic liturgical calendar, Christmas does not start until Christmas Eve and ends on January 6th, known as Epiphany or Twelfth Night. And in Roman Catholic New Orleans, the Church calendar defines Christmas and the weeks beyond.

In New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, Epiphany or King’s Night celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the non-Jewish people of the world, represented by Magi or three kings. It is the feast of gift giving celebrated in much of the Roman Catholic world. For New Orleans, it marks both the end of Christmas and the beginning of Carnival.

Penguin Plunge & Super Bowl 2010 001

King Cake, Mardi Gras beads, and throws.

So, while it marks the close of the Christmas season, Epiphany is the beginning of the Carnival season. And as such, it marks the first appearance of the ubiquitous king cake, which is generally round in shape, with cinnamon flavoring, decorated with glaze or colored sugar in Carnival colors (purple, green and gold). It contains a baby (representing the baby Jesus), a bean, or other trinket. Traditionally, the lucky celebrant who finds this item must provide the next king cake.

Carnival season ends with Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, which is followed by the 40-day Lenten season running up to Easter. King cakes may be served throughout Carnival or king cake season. However, much more goes on during the days leading up to Mardi Gras. In fact, the first Carnival Krewes emerge this weekend to mark a succession of balls, parades, and winter celebrations.

phunny phorty phellowa

Phunny Phorty Phellows, January 6, 2012.

On the evening of January 6th, a relatively new Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc  parades through the French Quarter to mark her birthday and Twelfth Night. The krewe also marks the historical ties between France and New Orleans. A little bit later in the evening, the costumed Phunny Phorty Phellows, the modern incarnation which began in 1981, take over the St. Charles streetcar line, thus marking the anarchic beginning of Carnival.

Thus in New Orleans, the end of one celebration coincides with first day of a new one. And one season of revelry begets another.

King Cake: “Yeah, there’s an app for that!” Friday, Dec 30 2011 

The tradition of serving King Cake as part of the New Orleans carnival season dates back to the 18th Century. The baked confection, which contains a trinket (often a plastic baby) or dried bean, has been decorated with purple, green, and gold sugar or icing since those colors became a part of Mardi Gras in the 19th Century. It is proper fare anytime from Epiphany (January 6th) through Mardi Gras. And you’d think the tradition could just rest with that, but you would be wrong.

King Cake from Haydel's, Super Bowl Sunday, February 2010.

For years, former New Orleans residents could have a King Cake shipped anywhere from a number of New Orleans area bakeries. The packages usually contain the cake, Mardi Gras beads and trinkets, and perhaps even a music cd. Most of those bakeries have websites where you can order your little piece of Carnival and increasingly, you can find Haydel’s,   various Randazzo bakeries, and others on Facebook.

Randazzo’s Camellia City Bakery has taken taken the King Cake tradition and social media to the next level. This year the bakery has launched an interactive King Cake app — King Me! So, if you feel the need to order a customized King Cake using your smartphone or tablet, you’re in business!

Yes, a new tradition for Carnival!


On the Twelfth Day of Christmas…and Beyond Thursday, Jan 6 2011 

King Cake, Super Bowl Party, 2010

For most Americans, the Christmas tree was banished to the curb over a week ago; and in many stores, Valentines and boxes of chocolates have replaced tinsel and candy canes. Nevertheless, in much of Christendom, today, January 6th, marks the end of festivities. And to think of it, the symbolism of the Epiphany – the presentation of the newborn baby to the Magi – has more gift-giving relevance than a bunch of sheep surrounding a manger. Regardless, for most of us, the holiday season has quietly come to a close.

Except, that is, in places like New Orleans. For them, January 6th marks the close of the Christmas season, but simultaneously the beginning of the Carnival season. From the first “King Cake” on the Twelfth Night (see “An Epiphany”), Carnival builds from parties and balls into the crescendo of beads, floats, and beer that is Mardi Gras. And this year, with Mardi Gras falling on March 8th, the pre-Lenten celebration is longer than usual.

This is not to say that the next two months will be filled with drunkenness and debauchery. Just as people who remain on Bourbon Street are under the mistaken impression that they have experienced New Orleans, Carnival is much more textured, traditional, and family-oriented than the national media or “Girls Gone Wild” videos suggest.

Beads along St. Charles Ave., March 2008

Sure, folks in southern Louisiana seldom run from good fun, but the lion’s share of the balls, cotillions, parties, and other activities take place in neighborhoods and suburbs not called the French Quarter. Most parades pass along broad avenues where families set out lawn chairs and barbeques on the grassy medians (called “neutral ground”) so that they can make a day of it. Tourists generally miss the formal balls, the Mardi Gras Indians, and earlier parades, and likewise, miss the point.

The Carnival celebration is the product of the city’s traditions — religious, social, and ethnic. And if you know the people, you also know that such traditions are guarded with a certain ferocity.  To suggest to them that drunken lunkheads or the baring of breasts is part of Mardi Gras tradition, would be like praising FEMA or inviting BP to a beach party. Public ritual, borne of generations, is tradition; bad behavior is not.

So when you see the national news coverage of the festivities, rest assured that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

New Orleans Seventy Years Ago: In Living Color Saturday, Nov 13 2010 

In the last couple of days I’ve come across a couple of fascinating short films about New Orleans. They were produced a few months apart in 1940 and 1941 and both are in color.

The first is a short documentary that James A. Fitzpatrick made for MGM. The beginning is missing, but the rest of it seems to be intact. It was made as part of the “Travel Talk” series, but comes off more as a social studies lesson. A lot of focus on the the Mississippi and shipping. Great scenes of Cafe du Monde,  the Roosevelt Hotel, and the “new” Charity Hospital. The shots of bustling Canal Street, when compared to the present, are rather sad. Not surprisingly, after viewing the short, you wouldn’t know that New Orleans including Bourbon Street or working class neighborhoods. You can view it on YouTube.

The other was made a few months later during the Mardi Gras celebration in late February 1941. The film quality and color are quite remarkable. There is no sound, but music featuring George Lewis and Johnny Dodds provides appropriate musical accompaniment. It includes a children’s krewe and the first female krewe (Venus). Alas, it would be the last Mardi Gras celebration until after World War II. You can view it here.

An Epiphany Wednesday, Jan 6 2010 

January 6th is the Catholic feast day Epiphany, which comes from the Greek for appearance. Also known as “Twelfth Night,” it marks the presentation of the infant Jesus to the Magi or Wise Men. And in much of the Christian world, it is day on which Christmas gifts are exchanged.

In New Orleans, which never shies away from an opportunity to celebrate, it takes on more meaning. While to many, Epiphany represents the end of the Christmas season, in New Orleans it is also the start of Carnival, which this year ends on Tuesday, February 16th, Mardi Gras day.

In a tradition that dates back to the 18th Century, It begins with “King Cake,” a baked confection decorated with purple, green, and gold sugar. The cake contains a trinket (often a plastic baby) or dried bean. The person who gets the prize may be required to supply the next cake. King Cake parties are common throughout the Carnival season.

While most focus on the Mardi Gras parades leading up to Mardi Gras itself, Carnival also features dances, masked balls, and debutante coming out parties. And even though most krewes and social clubs parade over the days leading up to Mardi Gras, there are some parades sprinkled throughout the season. In fact, on Epiphany itself, the members of the Phunny Phorty Phellows mask and take over the St. Charles Streetcar Line to mark the beginning of the next season of festivities.

Happy New Year! Wednesday, Jan 7 2009 

A new year has begun. And while it snows and sleets here in New Hampshire, the Carnival season is underway in Louisiana. Yesterday was Epiphany, the feast that marks the visitation of the Magi. While to most this marks the end of the Christmas season, in New Orleans it is the beginning of Carnival; it will stretch from now until Mardi Gras, which this year falls on February 24th.  In these winter weeks before the solemn season of Lent, revelers will attend masked balls, king cake parties, and parades throughout southern Louisiana. While we focus on the days leading up to Mardi Gras itself, this marks an entire season of celebration.

Although masked balls and parades are scarce here in the Granite State, Basin Street Records, in collaboration with NOLA.com (Times-Picayune online) has created NOLA Radio online, which will feature music from Kermit Ruffins, Henry Butler, Dr. Michael White and others to help mark the season. You can access it from here.

So don’t despair; even though you might have to forgo the king cake and beads, you can savor the music.