King Cake - A Sweet Tradition
The Mardi Gras or Carnival season officially begins on January 6th or "King's Day" - 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 is 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 (the Three Kings) 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 next King Cake!
A Little Mardi Gras History
Every year, New Orleans shuts down and throws the party of parties! Everywhere else in the country, it might be "just another Tuesday"...but in New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras! This holiday and the entire carnival season reflect and define the cultural traditions of New Orleans. Mardi Gras is actually French for Fat Tuesday. Some time ago, the tradition was to slaughter a fatted calf on the Tuesday before the 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 finale for the Carnival season. The Carnival season begins on January 6th, or "King's Day", 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.
The Carnival season is the highlight of the New Orleans social calendar. Since the season officially begins on the twelfth day after Christmas or "King's Day", many New Orleanians with artificial Christmas trees will leave them up and replace the Christmas decor with purple, gold, and green decorations.
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 royalty may seem comical. However, being chosen is a very special honor, and is taken very seriously.
The average Mardi Gras Krewe spends thousands of dollars and countless hours of donated time to their respective parade. Why do it, you might ask? The people here love their city! You just have to ride in a Mardi Gras parade to fully understand the thrill of throwing beads, etc to an excited crowd!
Although parades roll for weeks before Fat Tuesday, parades on Mardi Gras day begin early in the morning with the ever popular Zulu...and don't stop until the last float passes late in the night. To many, the highlight of Mardi Gras day is the toast between the King of Carnival - Rex - and the mayor of New Orleans. During the toast, Rex gives all city workers the day off and commands everyone to have a good time!
The identity of the King of Rex is a secret until "Lundi Gras", aka, the day before Mardi Gras. People anxiously await the announcement of the "King of Carnival". The King of Rex is chosen because of his prominent standing in the community.
The Queen of Rex is always a young debutante. Carnival season officially ends when the King and Queen of Rex meet at midnight on Fat Tuesday. When they meet, the traditional "If I Ever Cease To Love" song is played and eyes will fill with tears from memories of Mardi Gras past. The fact that everyone celebrating will have to wait another year to have this much fun makes it even harder.
Once the clock strikes midnight, police take to the streets on horseback, followed by street sweepers, announcing that Mardi Gras is over and people should "clear the streets"...wrapping up yet another successful Carnival season! Laissez les bons temps rouler!