By Lyndsey Beaulieu
ln this week’s episode, “Dippermouth Blues,” Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and pianist Tom McDermott play a gig that seems like just another uptown social gathering. There, she happens to run into Davis’ (Steve Zahn) parents, Roger and Ramona McAlary (Marco St. John and Ann McKenzie), and his Aunt Mimi (Elizabeth Ashley). But this particular party has its roots in religious observances; this party is a Twelfth Night party. For the rest of the Christian world, January 6th, or the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the visitation of the Three Wise Men to the Christ Child. It marks the end of the Christmas holiday when folks are finally getting back to some sense of normalcy, putting away decorations and throwing out Christmas trees. But for New Orleanians, red and green ornaments are replaced with purple, green, and gold ones (yes, on the same tree that was once for Christmas). That’s because the end of Christmas is actually the beginning of our Mardi Gras -- and Twelfth Night is how we usher it in.
Twelfth Night celebrations, referred to as such because they’re on the twelfth day of Christmas, date back to the pre-Christian tradition of an end-of-winter festival. Cake was served and whoever found the bean inside his slice would be crowned the “Lord of Misrule,” effectively turning things upside down with his “commoner” reign. Today, the second oldest Mardi Gras krewe in New Orleans, the Twelfth Night Revelers (T.N.R.) takes on that same tradition. Every year they kick off the Carnival season on January 6th with an invitation-only ball to crown a queen and her maids, with his majesty, the Lord of Misrule by her side. The Twelfth Night Revelers formed in 1870; their first parade was a procession of about nine floats followed by the first T.N.R. ball at the French Opera House on Bourbon St. The Lord of Misrule ruled the night, but the main attraction was the crowning of a queen.
Back in the day, the selection process involved an actual king cake and slices served to all the single ladies. Today, a wooden replica of a giant king cake is rolled out and the ladies of the court pull out small wooden drawers from the cake. The lucky lady who finds the golden bean (rumored to be a golden locket in the shape of a bean) is crowned queen, and the finders of the silver beans serve as her maids. There’s definitely a bit of pageantry involved -- the regal parade of last year’s royalty into the ballroom, a formal first dance, a toast, and the new queen’s reception, are just a few of the festivities that take place at the annual T.N.R ball.
The other popular Twelfth Night celebration heralding the coming of Carnival is the infamous streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows. This krewe, less about high society, is steeped in its own bit of history. The Phunny Phorty Phellows started parading in 1878 following Rex, the King of Carnival, and became known as the “dessert of Mardi Gras,” in contrast to the pomp and circumstance of Rex. Their floats were strange and their strong suite was satire and mockery. Their slogan, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the best of men,” is the perfect encapsulation of their mission. The Phellows disbanded around 1898, but the modern incarnation of the organization re-emerged in 1981, made up mostly of 30 and 40-somethings, many of them business members in the community who wanted to re-introduce that same sense of fun and whimsy to Twelfth Night.
Every year on January 6th the Phunny Phorty Phellows gather at the Willow Street Car Barn in Uptown New Orleans (where the historic New Orleans streetcars are housed) around 6:30 p.m. and begin the Carnival Countdown with satirical costumes and signs, champagne toasts, and of course, king cake. They board a decked-out streetcar and from there, the festivities become mobile. The krewe rides down St. Charles Avenue throwing the first beads of the season, announcing to all the party we’ve been waiting for has finally begun. The party on wheels making its way down the Avenue is a sight that has to be seen to be believed, and it’s not uncommon for residents along the route to host dinners or cocktail parties to catch the spectacle as it passes -- and perhaps, a bead or two.
New Orleans is a city that’s known for its calendar of events and holidays, usually with a uniquely New Orleans-way to celebrate each and every one of them (Mr. Bingle, anyone?). But I’m looking forward to the one tradition that trumps them all – Mardi Gras. I know I can’t be the only New Orleanian who thinks it: One of the best things about Christmas is knowing that Mardi Gras is right around the corner. Tis’ the season!