Twelfth Night: From Shakespeare to NOLA
Most of us have returned to work and the holidays are memories. Some of us are taking down our trees today or tomorrow, because to take them down before Epiphany is considered bad luck. For others. Epiphany or Twelfth Night has a religious connection. How does it all tie in, and what does it have to do with New Orleans? The Southern states can trace our colonial beginnings to England, France and Spain. Remnants of these, or colonial hangovers as I call them, are still apparent in many of our traditions. Far be it from any Southerner to miss out on a good tradition or superstition.
Claire Ridgway of The Anne Boleyn Files says, “In Tudor times Epiphany was a time for celebration, a last blast before getting back to normal, and it was celebrated in style at the royal court with masques, pageants and plays.”
The English Christmas pudding tastes remarkably like my great-grandmother’s Jam Cake recipe. She was of English heritage and I’m certain her ancestors used the ingredients they found here to make the dessert, and the name evolved over the centuries. And, if you paid attention in history class you know that Virginia was named for the Tudor Queen, Elizabeth I. Many still see this as a last day to celebrate the holidays. In fact, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written to celebrate the end of the Christmas feasting in Tudor England.
Let’s take a look at our French and Spanish colonial roots. They were kind enough to leave the American South the inheritance of Carnival and Mardi Gras. The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe. From there, the traditional revelry of “Boeuf Gras,” or fatted calf, followed France to the American colonies. In 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived sixty miles south of New Orleans. Bienville settled a location which is now Mobile, Alabama. In 1703, this tiny outpost at Mobile celebrated America’s first Mardi Gras. New Orleans was established in 1718 and by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly there, but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor established elegant society balls. The days leading to Fat Tuesday are the most interesting to some of us. The party begins on January 6 each year with Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night or the feast of Epiphany, was celebrated by Creole society from the earliest days of colonial Louisiana. These Bals de Roi (the King’s Ball) were given at homes for family and friends. The highlight was the cutting of the King Cake (Gateau des Rois). The finder of the bean, la feve, in the cake became Le Roi or La Reine de la feve, and would reign over the next event, which they would host. From there, a series of balls began each season and culminated on the final great party of Mardi Gras evening. These traditions were formalized with the organization and first appearance of the Twelfth Night Revelers on January 6, 1870. At the first ball in 1870, court fools and jesters made a mess of things while attempting to serve the King Cake on their spears. The girl who found the gold bean chose not to acknowledge her “good” fortune. The following year the Lord of Misrule knew which slice contained the bean. When he saw the young lady receive the slice, he crowned her with a wreath of oak leaves, proclaiming her “Queen of the Ball.” In subsequent years, ladies who found silver beans in their cake became maids of honor.
1872 was the year that a King of Carnival, Rex, was invented to preside over the first daytime parade. Legend has it that to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanov, the Romanov colors of purple, green and gold were adopted as the Carnival’s official colors. These colors are still in use today. The following year, floats began to be constructed in New Orleans instead of France
Twelfth Night Revelers survived seasons of inactivity and reorganization during the 1880s, each time returning to open Carnival festivities on January 6. The great masquerade balls (tableaux) of earlier years were staged in the richly decorated rooms of the city’s grand hotels, The St. Louis and the St. Charles, and public masked balls continued in theaters, ballrooms, and halls of numerous civic and social organizations. All of the Carnival balls were similar in structure and ritual. A number of tableaux were performed, with beautifully scenic decors and colorfully costumed and masked krewes illustrating each year’s theme. All dancing would last until the early hours of the morning.
The royal courts were the central figures of the evening, but the extravagant parties were also designed to entertain thousands of guests. Societies looked for inspiration from mythology, literature, history, and nature. But the art of stagecraft was and is the biggest display of all. It is said that none was more brilliant than the elaborate production at the French Opera House in 1898, which was entitled “The Meeting of King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold.” Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of that spectacular event.
When the United States entered World War I, all Carnival balls and parades were canceled. Only weeks before Twelfth Night and the opening of the Carnival season in 1920, the French Opera House was destroyed by fire. Within hours the building was reduced to smoldering fragments. The French Ambassador to the United States wired his condolences to the French Consul General in New Orleans, saddened by the loss of such an iconic structure.
The traditions lives on. This blend of history and fun make New Orleans magical at this time of year. The fog rolls across the French Quarter from the river, with a slight drizzle of rain and mist in the air. The Christmas trees remain until Fat Tuesday, with only the purple, green and gold ornaments. You’ll catch one of the tarot readers locking the doors to Bottom of the Cup on Rue Royale, just like they have been doing since the 1920s. The cobbled streets and alleys are almost devoid of tourists. This is the time of year vampires probably come home to NOLA. Once you see New Orleans in early January, you will understand why Tennessee Williams fell in love with the Crescent City. Get a King Cake and invite some friends over. Here’s a festive drink recipe to get you started, it isn’t purple, gold or green but Chambord is French. This is my favorite. Why wait?
Chambord & Champagne
1/4 oz Chambord Liqueur
Add Chambord to bottom of flute and top with Champagne. Garnish with Raspberry.
“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans…” Tennessee Williams
Claire Ridgway, The Tudor Society. http://www.tudorsociety.com
Mardi Gras Treasures, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc, 2006.
Recipe from Liquor.com