3 King's Day traditions: Tell us how you kick off Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is steeped in tradition. Within the shared customs of parading and costuming, however, we New Orleanians create personal Carnival rituals. 

King's Day, Jan. 6, is no exception. May of us have specific and lovely ways to usher in Carnival season as we take that first bite of king cake for the year. (If you've already enjoyed king cake this year: Tsk, tsk, tsk). We might watch the Phunny Phorty Phellows or catch the Joan of Arc parade on Friday or start something new this year with the inaugural Not so Secret Society of Elysian Fields.

Or, we might mark the season's start in a more private way.

If you have a personal Twelfth Night tradition, please share it. Tell us how, where and when you will take that first bite of king cake this Carnival season.
Tell your story in the comments or send an email to amaloney@nola.com. Photos are welcome.

Mardi Gras falls on Feb. 28, so that's 53 days to enjoy king cake, but -- if you've abstained until now -- that first bite of the year is always the sweetest, isn't it?

Here are three Epiphany traditions - one for each of the kings who visited the baby Jesus in the manger, according to the Bible story.

KING CAKE AND CHAMPAGNE AT MIDNIGHT

"At midnight on the fifth, I always have a little slice ready," said costume designer Elizabeth Zibilich, who gathers with a small group of friends to eat the first slice of king cake and sip Champagne.

"My friends and I have a couple of spots along the river that we really like," she said. "We ring in Carnival at midnight."

"This is something I came up with a few years ago," said Zibilich, who was born and raised in New Orleans and now lives in Esplanade Ridge. "I just wanted something to mark the start of the season. This is like Christmas and Halloween all wrapped up into one for me. This is my season. Some people really love the Christmas season. Some people really love another holiday. This one is mine."

How much does she love Carnival? She has a tattoo of a king cake wrapped around her leg, like a garter. Last year, she was having work done on the tattoo on Twelfth Night at Tattoo A Go-Go, so she ordered a Haydel's king cake through Uber and had it delivered directly to the shop.

Elizabeth ZibilichElizabeth Zibilich, far right, with other revelers gather for the start of the Society of Saint Anne walking parade in the Bywater on Mardi Gras day, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. FEMA markings from Hurricane Katrina are still displayed on the wall. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Also, she said, her ritual serves a practical purpose.

"A lot of my friends in the service industry. It gives them a chance to get out into it before the season begins. I'm a costume designer. Sure, I get to design all the costumes, but I don't get to go out to all of the parades because I'm working," said Zibilich, who owns Crafty Li'l Devil costumes.

"Tradition is important, even if it is only your little personal tradition," she said, noting her Mardi Gras unfolds much the same way each year: She rises early, puts WWOZ on the radio as she makes up and costumes. Then, she stops by a friend's house on the way to see the Society of St. Anne. She enjoys the day until about 3 or 4 p.m., when she comes home, showers and settles in with red beans or jambalaya to watch the meeting of the courts on WYES.

"It's New Orleans and we do definitely have our traditions," she said. "Whatever you do, you make it your own."

And, if she has leftover king cake, she turns it into French toast the next morning.

A KING'S DAY REUNION WITH FRIENDS

On Jan. 6, friends Brett Martin, fellow writers Pableaux Johnson and Wayne Curtis and bartender Chris Hannah all gather in the same place: Arnaud's French 75.

Martin, who is from Brooklyn, just happened to move to New Orleans on Jan. 6, 2011. The following year he gathered a few friends to mark his one-year anniversary in the city. The event has continued on King's Day each year and now attracts dozens of friends to Arnaud's French 75 and spills over onto the mezzanine that looks over the French Quarter landmarks main dining room.

"I started gathering people, with no cake," said Martin, a writer and "GQ" correspondent. "At some point, Wayne and Pableaux and Chris Hannah became co-hosts and this ritual grew beyond my anniversary."

It evolved into a king cake party, he said.

Brett MartinBrett Martin, author and 'GQ' correspondent, just happened to move to New Orleans on Jan. 6, 2011. (Photo by Pableaux Johnson) 

"The cakes started coming on their on own -- suddenly there were enough cakes to fill the Arnaud's mezzanine," he said. "We've never required that anyone bring cakes. We've never gone out and bought them. They just appear."

For transplanted Martin, the evolution has been a unexpectedly wonderful way to mark the milestone of making New Orleans his home.

"I'd never heard of king cake before (moving here), so I'm a babe when it comes to this tradition," he said. "I feel sheepish claiming it as my tradition because it isn't mine in any New Orleans way, but it's become a kind of personal marker of coming here and being part of the culture.

"It's everything it's supposed to be. It's a reunion. It's a kick-off of the season," he said. "Now, especially now that I have children, it might be the first time I've seen people in an entire year," he said.

"It's been really lovely to kind of claim and use it to kick off the Carnival season," said," he said.

Does he expect it to continue? Yes, Martin said: "It's not long by New Orleans standards, but it's a tradition."

GIVING YOUR OWN GIFTS TO KING'S DAY

For as long as I can remember, my family marked Jan. 6, with a king cake party at my parents' house. We'd get three cakes: Gallette de Rois (usually from Maurice's), an old-fashioned plain king cake (often from La Louisiane) and a filled cake from a rotating selection of bakeries.

The three youngest children in the family - my parents' grandchildren in recent years -- would each take a cake and make a little procession into the room where the Christmas tree was standing. The youngest children would move the small three wise men and the camel's to the manger under the treee, to mark their arrival on this day.

Ann Maloney's parents christmas managerOn Jan. 6, the family would gather and the youngest children would move the kings and camels to the manger under the tree. (Photo by Ann Maloney, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Then, my mother would select someone to read the Bible story of the three kings men bringing the gifts to the baby Jesus.

We'd cut the cake and as we enjoyed it, we would share something of ourselves - offer our own gift to the family. One might play guitar, another would sing a song. I might recite a poem. My brother would maybe tell a joke. When the nieces were really little, they'd do a bit from of their holiday dance recital.

The tradition has waned in the last couple of years. My father died in 2009 and we soldiered on. Now, my mom, who was the standard-barer of this ritual, has had a stroke; the oldest grandchild is 16. Times change. Families change.

I still remember this fondly though. And, I'm hoping with the great nieces and nephews now arriving on the scene - one set to arrive any day now -- we can keep it alive for seasons to come.

As Zibilich noted: "You have to give the future generations the opportunity to take on these traditions, to make them their own."