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.

And so the season of madness begins again.

Joan of Arc Parade

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 elements of the ancient Germanic Yuletide and Roman Saturnalia, when everything was turned upside down, authority was mocked, people swapped genders, and so forth. It went on for twelve days, until Epiphany. I hear in Latin America they go for forty days, until Candlemas on February 2nd, but I digress.

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 south-western England still do. I prefer to celebrate my birthday then, but I digress.

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.

Yes, today is the first day of Carnival. The season of king cakes, masked balls, cheap plastic beads and endless parades is upon us. My boss has already ordered a king cake for this Friday, the goat cheese and apple one from Cake Cafe. That’s definitely my favorite, so I’m looking forward to it. I just hope I don’t get the baby, as I always seem to do.

Tonight the Phunny Phorty Phellows help to get the party started. 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.

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 last year, and my daughter became very interested in learning more about the life of Joan, so we’re looking forward to checking it out again tonight.

The 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 very short season. Mardi Gras fall on February 9th.

How early is that? Why, it won’t be this early again till 2027. It can be as early as February 3rd, but I’ve never seen that and probably never will. The earliest Mardi Gras in my lifetime was likely in 2008, when it fell on February 5th. And to think I missed that one because of a sprained ankle and the impending birth of my daughter, but I digress.

The latest Mardi Gras I’ve ever seen was in 2011, but I’m certainly hoping to be around in 2038 when Mardi Gras will fall on March 9, the last possible day. Again, I digress. I’m very digressive these days.

My point is that this year, it’s a short season, and the response is predictable. We hear people complaining that it’s all going by too quickly. Don’t fall into this trap! The variability of Mardi Gras and the Carnival season is a wonderful thing. Embrace it. Celebrate, don’t denigrate. Consider the implications of a convenient, modern, fixed date. The only way this would work is if Easter became a fixed feast rather than a moveable feast, which would mean disregarding the moon entirely. I’m sure some people would like that very much, but the very idea makes me retch. Don’t fall prey to this insidious anti-Lunarism. When a fellow paradegoer complains about the short Carnival season, haul off and punch that person right in the face. Strike a blow for the moon!

I still don’t have a costume, but it’s time to start thinking about one.

Happy Carnival, everyone.

Carnival Time

Yes, it’s that time again. As I’ve noted here before, Twelfth Night is traditionally observed on January 6th in New Orleans, but in other places it’s considered to begin at sundown on January 5th. I guess this relates to the old idea of holidays beginning the night before, like Christmas really seems to start on Christmas Eve, but it’s confusing to the modern mentality.

In any event, last night was the first time I’ve ever been invited to a Twelfth Night party on January 5th. It figures it would take a couple Hoosiers to pull a move like that; sadly, Jeff and Laura will soon be moving back to Indiana for a job opportunity that was too good to resist. We wish them well. We went in costume, of course, and had a good time. I felt like we were getting a jump on the rest of the city, though we had to make a relatively early departure so as not to keep our daughter up too too late. An unplanned theme emerged at the party — the color green. Lou from Denver was serving up a scalding and delicious chili verde, and not one but two of the ladies were dressed as green fairies, and so of course we had to drink a little absinthe.

Now that Carnival is officially here, it’s worth noting that it will be a long season — just about as long as possible. Why? Well, as we all know, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the March equinox. That puts Easter on the 24th of April this year. (April 25 is the last mathematically possible date for Easter to land on, so this is very late indeed.) Of course, Ash Wednesday is 46 days before Easter, so this year it falls on March 9, which means Mardi Gras in March 8. That will be the latest Mardi Gras I’ve ever seen, but I’m certainly hoping to be around in 2038 when Mardi Gras will fall on March 9, the last possible day.

Since the beginning of Carnival is fixed but the end moves, the season can be short or long. It’s like an accordion, expanding and contracting over the years. The response is predictable. During short seasons, we hear people complaining that it’s all going by too quickly. During long seasons, people complain that it’s dragging on too long. Don’t fall into this trap! The variability of Mardi Gras and the Carnival season is a wonderful thing. Embrace it. Celebrate, don’t denigrate. Consider the implications of a convenient, modern, fixed date. The only way this would work is if Easter became a fixed feast rather than a moveable feast, which would mean disregarding the moon entirely. I’m sure some people would like that very much, but the very idea makes me retch. Don’t fall prey to this insidious anti-Lunarism. When a weary fellow paradegoer complains about the long Carnival season, haul off and punch that person right in the face. Strike a blow for the moon.

Happy Carnival, everyone.

Twelfth Night

Tonight is Twelfth Night, or so I thought.

Everybody’s heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but few people (in America, at least) know that these are the twelve days after Christmas, starting on December 26th and ending with Epiphany, also known as Little Christmas, which is January 6th, today.

These days, with the commercial focus on shopping and gifts, all the build-up is beforehand; when Christmas rolls around, many people have had their fill of holiday spirit. But in merrie olde England, the twelve days after Christmas were a wild and wooly time when everything was turned upside down, authority was mocked, people swapped genders, and so forth. (I hear in Latin America they go for forty days, until Candlemas on February 2nd, but I digress.)

I’d always assumed that Twelfth Night, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s famous play, was the night of the twelfth day of Christmas or January 6th. But it turns out that in ye olde England they counted kind of funny. Maybe they still do. They started with the evening before, so that the twelfth night of Christmas was actually the evening of January 5th. That’s when the crazy, upside-down season ended, and things got back to normal with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th.

That may seem complicated enough, but hold on. I live in New Orleans, and here Twelfth Night is indeed observed on the evening of January 6th, and it marks the beginning, not the end, of a period of debauchery.

Yes, today is the first day of Carnival. The season of king cakes, masked balls, cheap plastic beads and endless parades is upon us.

Tonight, the Phunny Phorty Phellows (an organization that supposedly goes back to 1870) will ride the St. Charles streetcar and get the party started. The 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 Easter of course falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. Hell, everyone knows that.

What this means is that the beginning of Carnival is fixed, but the end floats around. This year, it’s almost as short as can be. Mardi Gras falls on February 8th. Why, that’s barely a month. So all the festivities will be compressed, and maybe there will be fewer frat boys here for the big day.

And I still don’t have a costume…