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Op-ex: Why Carnival begins on January 6th

06 Jan 2015

written by Mod Mobilian


When does Carnival begin?

Most people consider January 6thTwelfth Night or Epiphany – to be the start of Carnival season. If fact, tradition says if you eat king cake or otherwise celebrate Carnival before January 6th then it will rain on Mardi Gras.

Although Mobile does not have a celebration on January 6th itself, this year festivities begin shortly afterwards will balls on Friday the 8th and the Domino Double Rush and others on the 9th. (Kudos to The Mobile Mask for beginning his ball schedule on January 6th).

New Orleans’ second oldest krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, have inaugurated Carnival Season since 1870 with a ball in which the Queen is selected finding a golden bean in a cake (now a wooden model thereof). The festivities are presided over by the medieval Anglo-Saxon character of the Lord of Misrule.  These are very old customs reputedly dating back to Celtic (Samhain) and Roman (Saturnalia) times, which you can read about elsewhere.  The Phunny Phorty Phellows (who ride the St. Charles streetcar line announcing Carnival) and the newer Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc also celebrate on January 6th.


Occasionally someone will argue that Carnival starts with the first parade or on Fat Thursday. Those proposals are fallacious but excusable.  Claims that Mardi Gras begins before New Year’s Eve or even Thanksgiving, however, go a bit too far.

To advance the beginning of Carnival to precede not only Christmas but also Advent is in essence to secularize it and divorce it from the liturgical calendar. It is not much different from the commercialization and secularization of Christmas and Easter in that respect.

Most people know that Mardi Gras is the day of celebration before Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. If you are Catholic or Episcopalian, you might also know that there are other cycles and seasons in the liturgical calendar – such as Advent, the Triduum, and Pentecost.

The Twelfth Night of Christmas on January 6th is also the eve of the Epiphany feast celebrating the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus.  This ends the Christmas season and heralds the pre-Lenten Season.  Twelfth Night is still celebrated as a feast in Britain and Europe, where it is the day that the Christmas tree, wreath and decorations must be taken down, and wassail is drunk.

Although the Catholic liturgical calendar (since Vatican II) no longer formally recognizes the beginning of pre-Lent on Septuagesima Sunday, the “pre-Lenten season” is based in longstanding tradition and is still observed by the Anglican Church, the Polish Catholic Church, and others.

Some people in both Mobile and New Orleans move the date up to Thanksgiving in order to include debutante events – but those constitute the debutante season, not the Carnival season. Others in Mobile move the date up to New Year’s Eve to bolster claims that Mobile started Mardi Gras in the United States. Mobile did not have a Mardi Gras mystic society until the Order of Myths paraded in 1868 – eleven years after New Orleans’ Comus first rolled in 1857. Mobile did, however, have the first mystic societies which paraded on New Year’s Eve – the Cowbellion’s, the Strikers and the T.D.S.  But Michael Krafft, who was Pennsylvania Dutch, was carrying on an old tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve with a Callathump or Mummer’s Parade, not Mardi Gras. (For an explanation of this see David Bagwell’s “Does Mobile Have the Original Mardi Gras or Not?” in Mobile Bay Magazine or Steve Joynt’s HMOM Learning Lunch video.)

Hopefully though, most of our readers realize that neither Mobile nor New Orleans “started” or “invented” Mardi Gras. Carnival has been celebrated since Medieval times, and changing the dates of such a celebration cannot be done arbitrarily or lightly.

So, remember your Carnival history and have a Happy Mardi Gras 2016!



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