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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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.

Leaving Ordinary Time Tuesday, Feb 21 2012 

Today is Mardi Gras. The end of Carnival. The end of Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time?

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes two stretches of Ordinary Time during their liturgical calendar. The first runs from the end of the Christmas Season, Epiphany (January 6th) up to Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten Season. The second is longer and less eventful, running from the end of Pentecost (the end of Eastertide) up to the Saturday before the beginning of Advent, the four-week period leading up to Christmas and the beginning of the liturgical year. In the grand scheme of things, the first is definitely more interesting than the second.

The first span of Ordinary Time, especially in places that celebrate Carnival or Mardi Gras, is anything but Ordinary. The time is filled with masked balls, King Cake parties, and eventually the festivities, feasting and parades leading up to Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day. Take your pick depending upon your local tradition.

In New Orleans, Ordinary Time ends exactly at midnight on Mardi Gras. It is so important that the police clear Bourbon Street, arresting those who persist in carrying their partying over into the early hours of Ash Wednesday. Nothing is left to chance or inebriated, self control. It. Is. Over.

Italian-American Marching Club Parade, Bourbon St., March 2007.

The curtain closes.  In a season which recognized Christ’s 40 days in the desert, those seeking the fasting, prayer and penance of the Lenten season go to church to receive Palm Sunday’s recycled palm fronds in the form of ashes. A new season. A new holy season has begun.

But there are loopholes. While in past centuries believers gave up meat, eggs and dairy, during Lent, today’s Catholics must only give up meat on the Fridays. But these restriction, too, may be waived if St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th), St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th), or the Annunciation (March 25th) chance to fall on a Friday. Then, dioceses may choose to wave the Fast. And that is important in New Orleans, where St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day are important for Irish and Italian/African-American residents, respectively. In a span of a few days, St. Patrick’s parades, St. Joseph’s parades and altars, and Mardi Gras Indian processions will come and come. And while the religious connections may be tenuous, they are extremely important in their respective communities.

Uptown Indian Parade, March 20, 2011.

So, while the NOPD might clear the Quarter at midnight following Mardi Gras, the parades, the parties, and the beads continue, albeit at a slower pace.

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.

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.