Count Like a New Orleanian

And so the season of madness begins again.

Judge Fire Burn Die

If you want to understand America, study Christmas. If you want to understand New Orleans, study Mardi Gras. Twelfth Night is the intersection of both of these. And tonight is Twelfth Night — if you know how to count like a New Orleanian.

Everybody’s heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but few people in 21st-century America know that these are the twelve days after Christmas, ending with Epiphany, also known as Little Christmas or Three Kings Day or Twelfthtide.

Increasing commercialization puts all the emphasis on the shopping season beforehand; when Christmas rolls around, many people have had their fill of holiday spirit. But our grandparents knew differently. Just a couple generations ago, the festivities began at Christmas, not weeks and months before.

In merrie olde England, Christmastide was a wild and wooly time, combining the Christian feast with elements of the ancient Germanic Yuletide and Roman Saturnalia. Everything was turned upside down, authority was mocked, people swapped genders, and so forth. It went on for twelve days, until Epiphany. In Latin America they go for forty days, until Candlemas on February 2nd.

Some say Carnival, and Halloween too, is a displacement of these old festivities. When the old ways were suppressed, they squished out on either side of the calendar, or so the story goes. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

The crucial question is when to start counting. You might think that Christmas Day would be included amongst the Twelve Days of Christmas. That would make the night of January 5th the Twelfth Night, which is indeed the date preferred by many. And then there’s Old Twelfth Night, which is January 17th if you calculate using the Julian calendar, and apparently some people in southwestern England still do. (I prefer to celebrate my birthday then, and it’s a big one this year, so please come to my birthday party.)

However, I live in New Orleans, and we count differently. We don’t count Christmas. Here Twelfth Night is observed on the evening of January 6th, and it marks the beginning, not the end, of a period of festivity. Meanwhile, my Serbian friend is telling me “Srecne Badnje Vece!” Happy Orthodox Christmas Eve! Could this get any more confusing?

Regardless, today is the first day of Carnival here in New Orleans. The season of king cakes, masked balls, cheap plastic beads and endless parades is upon us. My boss has promised a home-baked king cake next week. I just hope I don’t get the baby, as I always seem to do.

Tonight the Phunny Phorty Phellows come out of hiding. The spelling might seem like a modern innovation, but the Phellows are actually a revival of an institution going back to 1878. There’s been quite a few changes to their routine over the years. They used to follow Rex on Mardi Gras. Now they ride a streetcar on Twelfth Night.

This year they’re joined by a new krewe, the Societé du Champs Elysées, who are planning to pull a similar stunt on the new Rampart streetcar line. Tonight will also mark the 3rd annual 12th Night Bal Masque, an all ages show at the Civic Theatre, this year featuring a New York City noise/metal band named Gnaw. It seems like the sixth day of the year is regaining lost ground as a special day on our local calendar. (Unlike The Eighth which remains, perhaps deservedly, forgotten.)

January 6th is also Joan of Arc’s (apocryphal) birthday, and some folks capitalized on that, starting a new tradition in 2008: the Krewe de Jeanne D’Arc parade. We went for the first time in 2015, and my daughter became very interested in learning more about the life of Joan; we had a blast returning in 2016, and my daughter desperately wants to attend tonight. But it’s cold and getting colder; it’s wet and getting wetter; and I have been fighting some sort of virus since New Year’s Eve, so I’m not sure it’s in the cards for us this year.

This just in: parade postponed because: weather!

The Carnival season culminates with Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — which always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent and is forty days before Easter, and as everyone knows Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. Elementary.

What this means is that the beginning of Carnival is fixed, but the end floats around. Some years it’s a long season, some years it’s short. It’s like an accordion, expanding and contracting over the years. This year we’ve got a moderately long season. Mardi Gras falls on February 28th.

How late is that? Well, in just a couple years, in 2019, it falls on March 5. The latest Mardi Gras I’ve ever seen was March 8, 2011, but I’m certainly hoping to be around in 2038 when Mardi Gras will fall on March 9, the last possible day.

Recently there’s been talk of fixing the date of Easter so that it would always be on the second Sunday in April. If that happened, Mardi Gras would generally fall in late February, but this year it would actually be bumped up a week to February 21.

Of course, the only way to fix the date for Easter would be to ignore the moon entirely. That’s just totally uncool. The moon is awesome. Factoring out the moon is the opposite of awesome. The moon is variable, constantly changing. Some associate the full moon with irrational behavior, from which we derive the word lunacy. All the variability and madness of the Carnival season flows from the silvery light of the moon. Don’t fall prey to the insidious threat of anti-Lunarism!

I still don’t have a costume, but my daughter has suggested an Egyptian theme this year. I can count like a New Orleanian, but can I walk like an Egyptian? Time to get working on that.

Happy Carnival, everyone.

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