The celebration of Twelfth Night dates back to medieval England, and marks a turning point between the midwinter festival that begins with Halloween and ends as the Carnival season begins to fire up. Carnival means “farewell to the flesh”, and is a time of wildness, indulgence and celebration leading up to the final day of ultimate decadence before the austerity of Lent: Mardi Gras Day! Saturnalia and Bacchanalia were both celebrated in pagan Rome as lusty and decadent free-for-alls that involved excessive quaffing of wine, rich dishes, costumery, and all sorts of naughtiness. The darkest part of the year, in ancient times, required much merrymaking and fun to keep spirits bright during harsh winters that often brought much hardship. The twelve days of Christmas begin with Christmas day, and end on the Twelfth Night, or Epiphany. The end of the Winter Solstice season is ideally celebrated with a sense of triumph – that we made it through, that we survived to see another year! What better excuse for dressing up and dancing in the streets? Eat, drink, and be merry was their motto – and we’ll be trying our best to celebrate by that maxim, along with the Cajun French phrase you hear around Mardi Gras time in Louisiana: Laissez les bons temps rouler! – or: Let the good times roll!
In New Orleans, Twelfth Night is celebrated with king cake parties and, on a larger scale, Masquerade Balls. It is the night that the big Mardi Gras Krewes crown their King and Queen. On a scaled down version, house parties celebrate their own “king,” depending on who finds the plastic baby hidden in their slice of king cake. Tradition has it that the person to find the baby in their cake is rewarded with good luck for the year to come, and also is obligated to host the next king cake party before the season is over. Before plastic babies came into vogue In times of yore, a bean or a pea was hidden in the cake – the Bean King and the Pea Queen preside over the year’s festivities. It was custom for this day to be a time for everything to be turned on its head: to crown the peasants as kings, and for the royalty to run rampant in rags. On Twelfth Night, the Lord of Misrule dictates that everyone must come as they are not – the practice of dressing up in costumes or hiding one’s true face behind a masquerade mask is really a kind of ritual mummery that is practiced in ceremonies and magical rites in many cultures. When we dress in costume, we are given the freedom to become someone else – to enact fantasies, totems or characters from the deepest recesses of our psyches. It may seem to be nothing more than frivolity, but in truth, mummery can be a powerful form of catharsis for our spirits. Also, it really is a whole lot of fun!
Parades and processions have long been part of this celebration – taking to the streets in wild ensembles with noisemakers, instruments, pots and pans to bang on, (or even better – a marching band!) is another symbolic way of turning our every day sense of reality around. Houses and businesses that we might walk or drive by on any normal week are suddenly made more mysterious and special when we dance and frolic past them in a wild parade. It’s a form of reclaiming public space, of taking back streets and sidewalks that are usually only used in typical workaday fashion, and celebrating there. There’s something very magical about gettin’ down to a brass band in the middle of the street – a certain kind of freedom that’s not quite there in an enclosed space, or a venue dedicated to that purpose. We want very much to share that experience with Austin, and create a new tradition to help us all bring a bit more magic, dazzle and joy into our city!
“Christmas goes out in fine style with Twelfth Night. It is a finish worthy of the time. Christmas Day was the morning of the season; New Year’s Day was the noon; Twelfth Night is the night, brilliant with the innumerable plates of Twelfth Night Cakes. The whole island of Britain keeps court; nay, all Christendom. All the world are Kings and Queens. Everybody is somebody else; and learns at once to laugh at, and to tolerate, characters different from one’s own by enacting them. Cakes, characters, forfeits, lights, theatres, merry rooms, little holiday-faces, and last but not least, the painted sugar on the cakes – all conspires to throw a giddy splendor over the last night of the season.” – Leigh Hunt