365 NOLA Adventures

Adventure #4: The Twelfth Night of Christmas

Beans and Peas

Last Saturday was Twelfth Night aka Kings’ Day aka Three Kings’ Day aka Epiphany. Before I moved to New Orleans, if January 6th had any meaning to me, it was as the day after my birthday. I guess I knew it was the 12th Night of Christmas, but – as a Jew – this had little practical impact on me, other than it being the last day my Christian neighbors could, in good conscience, keep their Christmas Lights up.

In New Orleans, however, it’s probably a Top-10 day of the year! Why? In large part, because of king cake!

“Come on, Matt,” you might be saying. “What happens if someone eats king cake on, for example, January 4th or 5th?”

Good question. The answer is that they will be publicly shamed in a way typically reserved for those who wear seersucker after Labor Day. Here’s one of many examples I pulled from from my Facebook newsfeed to demonstrate the kind of passion I’m talking about:

But it’s January 6th, so no matter how you slice it (waka waka!), king cake is good to go. My trail name while hiking the Appalachian Trail was “King Cake.” About 60% of the time, this elicited a “What?” followed, after some amount of description, by an “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that before!”

So where did this delicious, sugar-coated magic come from? Jenny at The Historic New Orleans Collection came to the rescue yet again, sending me a couple of amazing articles from The Daily Picayune, dated 1870 and 1871!

The 1870 article explains that the holiday of Epiphany, which, in New Orleans, is synonymous with Twelfth Night, comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning “appearance,” referring to when the Three Wise Men (or the Three Kings) followed a star to Jesus, first seeing Him on the twelfth night after His birth.

This all brought me down a major research rabbit hole, that I only snapped out of once a friend suggested spending an hour reading an 1874 piece from The Dublin University Magazine, titled, The Folk-Lore of British Plants, might not be the best use of my time. But I did learn that, as early as Greece’s Pythagoras in the 6th Century BC, pagans used beans as a tool for voting (they’re what was tallied), and that the custom, called “election of kings by beans,” may have originated “from the custom observed by the Roman children who, at the end of their Saturnalia, drew lots with beans, to see who would be king.”

The Daily Picayune article states that early Christians – officially in 567 AD — began celebrating the Feast of the Nativity for twelve days, and that Epiphany was second in stature, only to Christmas Day, itself. In England — both among royalty and commoners — the Twelfth Night feast included a large cake, called “Twelfth Cake,” that had a bean hidden in it. “The family and friends being assembled, the cake was divided by lot, and whoever got the piece containing the bean was accepted as King for the day, and called “King of the Bean.” (Occasionally a pea was also hidden, and whoever found the pea would be crowned Queen.)

The French had a similar tradition, resulting in a proverbial phrase for good luck, “Il a trouve la feve au gateau,” – “he has found the bean in the cake.”

“King of the bean”?! A symbol of good luck?! Finding the plastic figurine of baby Jesus in your slice of king cake is hardly so warmly welcomed in modern-day New Orleans.

“Ow, fuck,” the unsuspecting guest pulls the plastic toddler out of his mouth.

“Ohhhh,” an obnoxious party-goer points, “Tommy got the baby! That means he has to bring the next cake.”

“Are you kidding me?” Tommy sulks, massaging his jaw. “I bought this one. I don’t have this kind of money. I write a blog for a living.”

Bywater Bakery

So where was I going to get my king cake? Thankfully I have a lot of experience doing this. When I go to a party, I try to bring something from the Bywater, to show my friends — who never make the trek to see me — what they’re missing. So I consulted my spreadsheet and decided to go with a favorite from last year from the Bywater Bakery.

Locking my bicycle up outside the red property that – other than the “Bywater Bakery” scrawled in white, block letters across the side of the building – doesn’t look much different than the homes surrounding it. New Orleans is famous for its neighborhood bars. This is the same thing, but with bread instead of booze.

I messaged with Chaya Conrad, the bakery’s founder and owner, and something she said was evident as soon as I pulled up.

“One of the things that was important to us when we opened Bywater Bakery was creating a community space that was comfortable for everyone. We live in the neighborhood and have watched as the demographics started changing. Business would open that seemed to cater to the “new” Bywater. We wanted to create a space everyone in the neighborhood felt welcome. We created a menu that was delicious and affordable.”

And, from my perspective, the bakery was on its way to achieving its goal. Children played on the corner of Dauphine and Independence streets while their parents waited in a line of customers, as diverse as the neighborhoods that straddle St. Claude Avenue, to pay for their king cakes. An old white woman with her traditional. A young black couple with their pecan praline. A college student with her Chantilly cream. A seemingly endless variety of, both, people and cakes. If there’s going to be a “new” Bywater, I want it to be more like this.

I asked Chaya about her recipe, which has become one of the most loved in the city. Before opening Bywater Bakery, she was the grocery store director for a local chain. I wanted to know what made this king cake so different.

“Grocery stores buy their dough pre-formed. They are basically cinnamon bun logs. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to start with a traditional brioche-style king cake, but when I tested them, they were a bit dry and bland. So I tried an ooey gooey butter smear instead. It was delicious! I added some colorful sprinkles for sport, and voila, Bywater Bakery’s king cake was born!”

And, as you can see from the ratings on my spreadsheet from last year, I agree.

I waited for my strawberry cheesecake king cake (I can already hear the traditionalists grumbling!) while a clarinet and piano duo played in the middle of the store for customers.

“We put a piano in, which really has become the sole of the bakery. We have such talented piano players as neighbors. It’s great to be able to showcase them. Plus, I like that we have a place that isn’t a bar, where people can hear live music. You heard it – it just gives the place a fun and warm vibe.”

Phunny Phorty Phellows

It was now after 5pm and the sun was setting in a French Quarter that was buzzing. Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in the French Quarter knows there’s always a lot of energy. But if you’ve lived in the city for a couple of years, you probably understand what I mean when I write that the French Quarter has a special kind of energy on the nights the locals descend.

That’s not a knock on tourists. It’s just to say that nights like Twelfth Night and Krewe du Vieux – hell, even afternoons like Barkus and the Gay Easter Parade – have a special atmosphere to them.

The music and hollers of tourist-sponsored second lines bounced around Decatur and Tolouse and Chartres, providing the soundtrack as members of the 10th Annual Joan of Arc parade (the first after becoming sister city to Orleans, France last week – the city she freed from British siege nearly 600 years ago) meandered toward their gathering points. I bicycled by a group of ladies with angel’s wings on their back, men and women clad in silver armor, and a group of women dressed in wigs and body-size flower costumes in elaborate, colorful designs.

I got to my buddy, Joe’s house, Uptown, and dropped off my king cake on a table beside other cakes from Haydels, La Louisiane, and elsewhere. Like any good Kings’ Night party, we drank beers, watched some football, played some games and, just generally caught up. But this group of friends also has a tradition dictating, any time we have a party at Joe’s, we deep fry…everything. Crawfish balls? In the fryer. Boudin balls? Throw them in there. Peppers and samosas? Grits and chicken wings? Get in that oil!

After two hours of deep frying, I needed a break, and decided I’d walk the six blocks to St. Charles to see the Phunny Phorty Phellows for my first time.

“What’s that?” my friend, Alice, messaged me back when I told her what I was doing. Alice was visiting from London and I met her and her friends, also vacationing, on New Years Eve.

“It’s this thing.” I didn’t know how to expediently explain a group of people riding the streetcar without it sounding lame. “Just meet me on the corner of Valence Street and St. Charles Avenue.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound sketch at all, does it?” she deadpanned.

We met on the neutral ground, opened two beers I brought from the party, and waited for the Phunny Phorty Phellows to roll by on the St. Charles tracks.

It had gotten much colder, and while Alice said she passed groups of people gathered on the neutral ground during her walk, our spot was desolate, broken up only by the stumbles and shouts of guests from a black tie wedding that must have recently ended. “Is this what Mardi Gras is like?” she asked. “Kind over overrated, don’t you think?”

“Just wait for it!”

“Wait for what?!”

I did my best to explain what I knew about the PPP. That they began in 1878, and their eventual slogan, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the best of men!” positioned them as something different than the more pretentious parades of the time. From then, on and off until 1898, the PPP followed Rex, prompting one historian to call them, “The Dessert of Mardi Gras.”

There was no dessert for the next 83 years — from 1898 all the way until 1981, when a group from Krewe of Clones (who claim credit for Krewe du Vieux), revived the Phunny Phorty Phellows tradition. The following year, their role in Mardi Gras had changed. Rather than signaling the end of Mardi Gras, they now kicked it off. Eat your dessert first?

A green streetcar rumbled down the tracks toward Alice and me, and I told her several had gone by before she arrived, carrying only a few passengers heading downtown. This one might be the same, I warned while squinting toward the approaching vehicle, trying to make out if anything was happening.

“I know it’s only my first Mardi Gras event,” Alice said, “but I just saw two people in costume jump off the trolley, and I think one of them had a trumpet.”

“This might be it, then! Cameras ready!”

At what felt like twice the speed of any streetcar I’d ever ridden, the Phunny Phorty Phellows phlew by, band playing, members drinking and eating and cheering. It was like a very tiny Mardi Gras parade, but with their epiphaneia, Carnival – the most wonderful time of the year – had begun!

Then and Now

As the Joan of Arc parade was underway, I wondered how parading became a Twelfth Night tradition. Was that a New Orleans Mardi Gras addition?

Of course not. Everything is inspired by what came before it.

The Daily Picayune article from 1870 mentions a tradition from early-Christian Rome. “A ridiculous figure called Beffana parades the streets amidst a storm of popular wit and nonsense. The children, on going to bed, hang up a stocking, which the Beffana is found next morning to have filled with cakes and sweetmeats, if they have been good, but with stones and dirt if they have been naughty.”

Sound familiar? In Italy, she has become Twelfth Night’s equivalent to St. Nicholas. But her rise to significance made me laugh. Apparently Befana (how her name is more commonly spelled) was approached by The Three Kings a few days before they found baby Jesus. She was considered the best housekeeper in the village, and so the Wise Men asked if they could stay for the night. She obliged, but when they asked if she knew where Jesus was staying, she said she had no clue.

The next morning, the three men asked Befana if she wanted to join them on their quest to find the Son of God, but she declined, citing a backlog of housework.

“Hi, do you want to come with us to meet the Lord and Savior?” I imagined the wisest man asking.

“No, I have to clean the baseboards,” Befana scoffed. “If I don’t do it, no one will.”

Legend has it that, that night, it occurred to her she may have made a poor decision. Befana tried to find them, but was unable. To this day, she is still searching for the baby Jesus, leaving treats (or dirt) on Twelfth Night for kids as she passes by.

In each of the two articles Jenny sent me from The Historic New Orleans Collection’s archives, the Twelfth Night Revelers are mentioned. The article from 1870 begins, “In view of the approaching celebration by the Twelfth Night Revelers of the ancient Christian festival of Twelfth Night, the following extracts from standard works will prove interesting.”

148 years later, the Twelfth Night Revelers met downtown to continue their long-standing tradition. 1870 actually marked the very first year the Revelers hosted a parade and, while their role as a parading group ended nine years later, they have held a ball every year of their existence!

2018 Queen Caroline Acomb and the Lord of Misrule pose on the throne at the Twelfth Night Revelers Ball at the Ritz Carlton. Saturday, January 6, 2018  (Photo courtesy of Josh Brasted and NOLA.com)

While I picked up king cake, the past queens of the Revelers met at Antoine’s for their annual luncheon. As I biked up through the chaos of the Quarter, the Lord of Misrule was on horseback, making his way to the ball at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. When Alice and I watched the streetcar carrying the Phunny Phorty Phellows, the Revelers’ costumed junior cooks were handing out programs to guests, and while my friends and I were eating king cake, the cooks rolled out a giant cake – one hiding a golden bean — and distributed slices to the young ladies at the ball, one of whom would become Queen.

The 1871 article from The Daily Picayune paints an incredible scene. That year, the Twelfth Night Reveler’s theme was Mother Goose’s Tea Party. “Once more the Ephipany has past,” it began.

“It brought with it revelry and merry-making, the beauty and charm of novelty, as early appreciated as was…the splendid imagery and gorgeous worship of the Magi in their star-crowned tern-pies of the East. There was a time when religion lent its solemn pageantry to the festival; when…every sacred niche disclosed its angel, and people knelt in crowds and did them reverence…As time went on, these fervent rites were abandoned for a lighter and more pleasant celebration. The Lord of Misrule was enthroned, and caricature usurped the offices of the church…The natures of men were changed.”

The article continues to describe 1871’s parade.

How joyfully the children looked at the fairy spectacle; how merrily did they laugh, and how gleefully they shouted when before their eyes passed the real heroes of the simple stories to which they had always so attentively listened. And older folks imagined themselves, again little children with hearts undisturbed by the world’s troubles and life’s cares.

Sound familiar? It’s getting me excited for the next round of parades!

The articles goes on to explain nearly every passing character. From Humpty Dumpty and his wagon of brooms, to Mother Goose and her fond children. To sweet little Bo-Peep “in the garb of a shepherdess,” to Jack and Jill “going for water, as it were.”

Old Mother Hubbard and her wonderful Dog came next, and as a matter of course, attracted much attention. So also did Puss in Boots, General Monk, the Pig that went to market, the Queen, King and Jack of Hearts, and other characters too numerous to be mentioned in detail at the very late hour of our writing.”

On a nicely decorated float, the Cat that played the fiddle, the Cow jumping over the moon, the Dog that laughed, the Dish running off with the Spoon, were playing their amusing pranks.

Joan of Arc and the parade to celebrate her 606th birthday were well underway at this point. A unit of drummers drummed. (Bag)pipers piped. Men dressed as lords leaped, and women dressed as fair ladies danced. I didn’t see any French hens, but I did see hundreds of New Orleanians dressed as medieval French soldiers on Decatur Street, silver breastplates glistening in the night.

And the crowd, a happy mixture of tourist and local, ate it up.

How joyfully the children looked at the fairy spectacle. How merrily did they laugh, and how gleefully they shouted when before their eyes passed the real heroes of the simple stories to which they had always so attentively listened. And older folks imagined themselves, again little children with hearts undisturbed by the world’s troubles and life’s cares.

So much has changed over the centuries. But it’s equally amazing how much has not.

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