History of Twelfth Night in Louisiana

We all love king cake. Learn why it's part of the Twelfth Night tradition.

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King cake is available at bakeries across Louisiana during Carnival season.

January 6 is an important date on the calendar in Louisiana because it marks the official opening of the “Carnival season,” the time when private Mardi Gras balls and street parades are staged. This date—called Twelfth Night since it is twelve days after Christmas—is the feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church, and it marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. It is also known as Kings’ Day or Little Christmas.

The Church set this fixed date for the start of the festive Carnival season (the feast before Ash Wednesday and the fasting of Lent), but a moveable one for the single day of Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday), which is 47 days before Easter. So Mardi Gras can be as early as February 3 or as late as March 9, making the Carnival season as short as 28 days or as long as 63 days.

Twelfth Night Events

Several events are scheduled on January 6 in New Orleans, starting with a morning press conference and king cake party by the Mayor at historic Gallier Hall where Mardi Gras parades have been passing in review since the first one in 1857. Representatives of all 33 parades that roll in the city attend this event.

The St. Joan of Arc foot parade strolls through the French Quarter in the evening. Three streetcar parades roll on Twelfth Night, starting at 7 PM with the Phunny Phorty Phellows, the group that started the trolley tradition in 1991. They roll from the Willow Street Car Barn on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. A new group, the Funky Uptown Krewe, which hops on its own streetcar at Jeannette and South Carrollton, follows them. At 7 PM the Society of Elysian Fields begins its ride on the St. Claude Avenue streetcar.

That evening after a parade on foot through the French Quarter, a private ball is presented at the Orpheum Theater by the city’s second-oldest Carnival organization, the Twelfth Night Revelers (TNR).

Borrowing from a centuries-old European custom, the men roll out a giant cake and distribute slices to young ladies at the ball. The lucky young woman who receives the golden bean hidden inside the cake is declared queen; the remaining women receive silver beans and serve as maids in her majesty’s court.

King Cake in History

In ancient times, tribes that survived the harshness of winter celebrated by baking a crown-shaped cake, using the preceding year’s wheat. Within the cake was placed a seed, bean, or nut. Later, the Romans chose a king for their festivals by drawing lots. The Catholic Church linked these ancient customs to the Feast of the Epiphany in the 4th Century.

During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Roi de la Feve (King of the Bean) was celebrated in both art and literature in Europe. “Twelfth Cakes” were annually featured in England. Twelfth Night rituals took place in Creole homes in New Orleans when its French settlers brought the gateau des rois (king cake) custom with them. In 1870 the Twelfth Night Revelers formalized the Mardi Gras connection with its first parade and ball.

King Cake in Modern Times

With a plastic baby doll tucked inside, the oval-shaped cinnamon dough brioche is covered in granulated sugar in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green. Custom dictates that whoever receives the tiny favor buys the next cake or gives the next party. Traditionalists will not eat a slice of king cake before Twelfth Night. By the early 21st Century, more than one million king cakes were being consumed locally each year, with another 75,000 shipped out of state via overnight couriers.