“It’s Carnival,” said one of the men sitting outside Fair Grinds coffee house a few weeks ago. (See my post on eavesdropping.)
Carnival is the season that leads up to Mardi Gras day. I’m clarifying this because it wasn’t clear to me when I lived here in 2004. I thought Carnival was an alternate name for the actual day of Mardi Gras, not a sanctioned season. I assumed that Mardi Gras decoration and king cakes appeared at the start of January because commercialization had lured vendors to start the party early, I assumed the influence of commercialization extended the celebration, in much the same way that Christmas now seems to begin on November 1.
King Cake Creep
Turns out I was half right. January 6th is known as Twelfth Night, the day that the three wise men brought gifts to Jesus. It marks the end of the Christmas season and the official beginning of Mardi Gras season–Carnival, as the man outside Fair Grinds said. I didn’t realize the connection to the Christian holidays–we’ll just my Semitic heritage. And the January 6 date explains the new year’s arrival of those king cakes.
Twelfth Night is also when the Phunny Phorty Phellows krewe packs into a streetcar and rides down St. Charles Avenue to announce Carnival’s arrival. It to be a true New Orleanian, one must wait to consume king cake until the Phunny Phorty Phellows have made their round trip through the Garden District. Eating the cake beforehand is called king cake creep. As the Phellows’ Captain told Nola Defender, “We consider ourselves the heralds of Carnival. We’re announcing that the Carnival season has begun, and now it’s officially okay to eat king cake.”
Seeing Off the Phunny Phorty Phellows
My boyfriend and I went with hundreds of others to watch the Phunny Phorty Phellows depart from the Willow Street car barn. The scene was packed costumes and colors. I should know by now that every occasion in NOLA requires a costume, but the costumes on this night didn’t seem to have a point– just a raid on the costume box.
The scene was scattered, but joyful. People greeted old friends and danced to a brass band as we waited for the streetcar to depart and pull the Carnival trigger. As the streetcar left the station the crowd slowly parted. My boyfriend and I stood to one side, unsure if the Phunny Phellows threw beads (they did. we didn’t get any.) The krewe whizzed by, abuzz in beer and revelry and the crowd dispersed immediately afterward, as if nothing had happened. It was anticlimatic, in a way.
I assumed there were crowds of people waiting on St. Charles, just as there are during the big Mardi Gras parades. But the streets were inactive. My friend saw the Phellows on their way back to the streetcar barn, and she told me they were no longer cheering out the window. I guess the Phunny Phorty Phellows start off Carnival with the quick burst of a firecracker… which might be a good idea, because we’ve got a long season ahead of us.