Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cool Catholic Traditions: Tweflth Night

King Cake=yum. Wish we had a plentiful supply here in Oxford!

Happy Epiphany!

After a very productive Christmas break (my family has grown by one new and perfect little baby girl), I'm back but don't let that first line fool you: I'm not that confused. Today, January 6th, really is the traditional date of Epiphany (also known colloquially as "Twelfth Night" as it is the twelfth day of Christmastide.... and yes, that is where the song comes from).  In Spain and in many areas of the world first colonized by the Spanish (Central and South America and the Philippines), today is also known as "Three Kings Day" in commemoration of the Magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child in the Epiphany Gospel reading. For these Catholics, today - not Christmas Day - is the traditional gift-giving day of the Christmas season. And yes, I know that most of us Catholics in the U.S. celebrated Epiphany this past Sunday (one of the more questionable/regrettable changes to the liturgical calendar IMHO, but I digress), but this day, January 6th, is the ancient date for the feast.

Carnival in the New World

In some areas of the deep South - namely the southern parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana - today marks the official start of the Carnival Season which culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday with Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday." While Carnival is a secular celebration, it has deep Catholic roots. The celebration of Carnival began centuries ago in Europe as a festive time when all of the meat, cheese and other perishable food items were consumed by communities during the weeks before the start of the Lenten fast. It had both a practical and social purpose. This origin is evident in the name "carnival" which is derived from the Latin phrase carne vale or "farewell to meat."

In the French-controlled areas of Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans, the tradition of celebrating Carnival arrived with the first French settlers near the turn of the 18th century. Slowly but surely, the French (and, in latter years, Spanish) traditions of Carnival seeped into the very cultural fabric of coastal society. In time, even non-Catholic Anglo populations within these cities began to adopt the festival and began to create Carnival and Mardi Gras traditions of their own.

Mardi Gras Parades and Krewes

In 1711, only a few short years after the city was founded, Mobile became the birthplace of the Boeuf Gras Society ("Fatted Ox" Society). This was the first mystic society - a fore-runner of modern-day Mardi Gras krewes. In 1830, also in Mobile, the first modern Carnival parade was organized by another Mobile mystic society, the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, whose masked members paraded with cowbells and rakes (yes, seriously). In 1856, in imitation of Mobile's parading tradition, a group of New Orleans businessmen organized a secret society in the old French Quarter which they called the "Mistick Krewe of Comus." The group is still very active and prides itself on being the first and oldest krewe in New Orleans. The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was organized by Comus in 1857.

But it all starts today - on Twelfth Night... on Epiphany. So, get a king cake and have a happy Epiphany!