King Cake - a sweet tradition
The Mardi Gras or Carnival season officially begins on January 6th or Twelfth Night - also known to Christians as the "epiphany." Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means "to show." Bethlehem is where infant Jesus first showed himself to the world. As a symbol of this holy day, a tiny plastic baby is placed inside each King Cake. the King Cake tradition is thought to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870.
A King Cake is an oval-shaped bakery delicacy - a cross between a coffee cake and a french pastry that is rich in history as it is in flavor: It's decorated in royal colors or Purple which signifies Justice, Green for Faith, and Gold for Power: These colors were chosen to represent a jeweled crown honoring the wise men who brought gifts to the Christ Child on the Feast of Epiphany. In the past such things as coins, beans, pecans, or peas were hidden inside each King Cake. Today a tiny plastic baby is the common prize. At a party, the King Cake is sliced and served. Each person looks to see if their piece contains the baby. if so, then that person is named "King for a day" and bound by custom to host the next party and provide the King Cake.
A Little Mardi Gras History
Every year, New Orleans shuts down and throws the party of parties. Everywhere else in the country, its just another Tuesday, but, in New Orleans it's Mardi Gras! Mardi Gras is more than a single day of celebration It's a state of mind. Mardi Gras reflects and defines the cultural traditions of New Orleans. Most "outsiders" assume Mardi Gras takes place on a single day. This is true. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. Some time ago, the tradition was to slaughter a fatted calf on the Tuesday before he beginning of the lenten 40 day fast. Thus, the coining of the phrase "Fat Tuesday."
There is a distinction, however, between Mardi Gras and Carnival. Mardi Gras is a single day that is the climax for the Carnival season. The Carnival Season begins on January 6th or Twelfth Night (King's Night) and runs until the beginning of Lent - the Easter season (Ash Wednesday). Carnival can run as long as two months, depending on the church calendar.
Although parades roll for two weeks before fat Tuesday, on the Day of Days - parades begin early in the morning with the ever popular Zulu and don't stop until the last float passes late in the night. The highlight of the parades is the toast between the King of Carnival - Rex - and the mayor of New Orleans. This is the official proclamation and beginning of Mardi Gras. During the toast, Rex gives all city workers the day off and commands everyone to have a good time.
The Carnival season is the highlight of the New Orleans social calendar. The season officially begins on the Twelfth Night or "King's Night." Many New Orleanians with artificial Christmas trees will leave them up and replace the Christmas decor with purple, gold, and green ornaments. These are the official colors of Carnival. Legend has is that green represents faith; gold, power; and purple, justice. Most people believe these colors were chosen simply because they look good together.
Another Carnival tradition that begins on the Twelfth Night is the King Cake. A King Cake is a ring cake decorated with sweet purple, gold and green frosting. In every King Cake there is a little plastic baby representing the baby Jesus. The person who is lucky enough to bite into the piece of King Cake with the plastic baby gets to buy the next King Cake for the next King Cake party.
During the Carnival season, Mardi Gras Krewes - local clubs that sponsor parades and Carnival events - hold elaborate balls and parties where their King, Queen, and other Royalty are announced for the year. On its surface, the election of its royalty may seem comical. However, being chosen is a very special honor and is taken very seriously by New Orleanians. Mardi Gras royalty are elected because of their contributions and standing in the community. being chosen to represent a Krewe as a King or Queen is an honor that announces to the community at large that these people have made our city a better place and that we recognize their hard work and dedication.
The average Mardi Gras Krewe spends hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of donated time to parades for just a few hours. Why do it? New Orleanians love their city and you just have to ride in a Mardi Gras parade to understand the thrill of throwing stuff to a hungry crowd.
Although every King and Queen deserves respect, the true King and Queen of Carnival is Rex. The identity of Rex is a secret until the day before Mardi Gras. People anxiously await the announcement of the King of Carnival. Being chosen as the King of Rex is the highest honor New Orleans can bestow. The King of Rex is chosen because of his prominent standing in the community. It really is a big deal!
The Queen of rex is always a young debutante. It's all very aristocratic. Carnival officially ends when the King and Queen of Rex meet, at midnight on Fat Tuesday, the Queen and King of Comus. When they meet, the traditional "Whenever I Cease To Love" theme is played and true New Orleanian's eyes will fill with tears from memories of Mardi Gras past, and the fact that they have to wait another year to have this much fun makes it even harder.
Once the royalty of Comus and Rex meet, police take to the streets to horseback - followed by street sweepers - announcing that Mardi Gras is over and people should "clear the streets." By this time, most people have had enough and are ready to rest. As soon as the last parade passes, the city begins the incredible task of cleaning up. All the garbage is weighed and this is how New Orleans estimates how many people came to Mardi Gras.