New Orleanians who do it right never have to worry about post-Christmas letdown. That's because the day that to most of the world is the twelfth and final day of Christmas is recognized here as Twelfth Night, the first day of the Carnival season. Quite literally, Carnival begins at the moment when Christmas ends. In other places, people have long ditched their Christmas trees by January 6, but in New Orleans the trees stand, at least until that date when their sagging limbs and shedding needles seem unable to contain the old season any longer.
In places where Carnival is not practiced, Twelfth Night is just another winter evening, but in New Orleans, the night is alive with subtle native rituals that are still spared the gaudiness and encroaching commercialism found as the season reaches its end on Mardi Gras. For almost a century and a half, The Twelfth Night Revelers have held their society ball on that evening, quietly and privately recognizing the season. On that same evening, a group called the Phunny Phorty Phellows has, for the last two decades, taken to a streetcar. The banners tied to the side announce to the world, or at least to those waiting for a trolley that "It's Carnival Time!" Watching for TV news coverage of the ride has become for some people the harbinger of the season.
As Carnival has grown and become marketed and manipulated, and in an age when positions on floats are promoted as visitor packages, much of the mystery, magic, and spontaneity have been lost. But in the dawning hours of each Carnival season, the spirit manifests itself.
For the last several years, the Phellows have experienced that spirit in terms of three to four mystery maskers who appear at the spot where their ride begins. The maskers wear full-face masks and overcoats. They carry signs with tongue-in-cheek messages about the Carnival season. None of the Phellows have been able to identify the maskers.
Once the streetcar leaves, the maskers disappear, only to reappear at different spots along the route.
Before Katrina interrupted the St. Charles route, the maskers' final appearance was when the streetcar approached Gallier Hall. There they stopped the vehicle long enough for a quick toast and an exchange of gifts. After that, they were gone- for another year. As one Phellow explains, "those maskers are one of the few things that are real and magic about Carnival. One year they won't be there and we're all going to feel pretty sad."
With the St. Charles route still denied them, this year the vagabond Phellows will take an alternate route by loading on the streetcar at N. Carrollton by City Park and then going up Canal Street to the river and back.
Prior to the Phellows, not much, other than the private soiree of Twelfth Night Revelers, happened on January 6th. The Phellows have made the day more popular and brought publicity to the opening of the carnival season. There have since been many followers. This year, for example, the Kenner-based Krewe of Zeus will celebrate its 50th anniversary by staging a special Twelfth Night parade along Metairie Road. Because the evening will be on a Saturday, expect a lot more activity this year. But, give credit to the Phellows. They have been there regardless of anniversaries, days of the week, or weather conditions.
Carnival has suffered losses through the years, but a city with endangered traditions at least has more soul than a city with no traditions at all.
Among those traditions is the king cake. Carnival's beginning, Twelfth Night, is a fixed date, but its ending, midnight on Mardi Gras, is movable. This year Mardi Gras is February 20, which means the season will last a little more than six weeks - that means a month and a half of being exposed to king cakes. The cakes tend to show up most everywhere during the season. Once they were baked so dry and undistinguished that they were easy to ignore; now they are injected with various flavors of globby stuff that make a bust out of New Year's diet resolutions but that are nevertheless tempting.
Few confections are as rich in rituals as they are in calories. For the Twelfth Night Revelers (known simply as "TNR" to society insiders) slices from a mock king cake are served to the waiting debutantes. Each slice has a silver bean, except one, delivered to the girl who must feign surprise as the gold bean within is her sign that she is Queen.
For the Phellows, wobbling along on a streetcar, real king cakes are used to determine the royalty for that year. One year the Queen-select was so excited that, after the ride, she called her father long distance to announce the news. The last time the father had heard from the daughter was when she had called to complain that the pipes in her home had been broken by a recent freeze. On this evening of Twelfth Night the old man, not used to the ways of New Orleans, seemed confused by his daughter's announcement. "Oh, so you're clean?" he replied. "No," the daughter replied,"'I didn't say I'm clean, I said I'm Queen."
Pity those places where on January 6, it is more important to be clean than to be Queen. In New Orleans we know better.
Reprinted with permission of the author, Errol Laborde.