Why does Mardi Gras season start on Jan. 6? Answers for newbies

This year's Carnival season (which absolutely nobody calls the Carnival season) starts on Friday, Jan. 6, and ends at midnight on Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras day), Feb. 28. New Orleanians may celebrate the start of the season on Jan. 6 because of a drunken king cake party in 1870. But before we go into detail about Jan. 6, 1870, here's what you should know about Jan. 6, 2017.

Your Jan. 6 rights and privileges

Starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday, you are free to say "happy Mardi Gras" to the bus driver, in the same way you might start saying "Merry Christmas" on the first day after Thanksgiving.

Starting Jan. 6, you are also free to wear purple green and gold, the ghastly colors of Mardi Gras. But start out slow. In the workplace, your fellow employees should not be asked to endure your purple, green and gold bowtie or scarf until, say, Endymion Saturday (Feb. 25).

Starting Jan. 6, you are free -- obliged, even -- to eat king cake (round pastries with ghastly purple, green, and gold sprinkles) whenever you encounter it.

Truth is, these days you'll see king cakes for sale pretty much all year round. However, purists view purchasing king cakes before Jan. 6 as a demonstration of gauche impatience. Sort of like shooting off fireworks on July 3. Or opening the Christmas presents a day early.

It's no big deal.  A cultural misdemeanor.

Time to take down the tinsel

In the Catholic world, Jan. 6 is called Epiphany or Twelfth Night (since it's twelve days after Christmas) or Kings Day (hence the King Cake tie-in, right?). It marks the moment in the Bible that the three kings, having traveled over field and fountain, moor and mountain, arrived in Bethlehem to behold the baby Jesus. Traditionally, Epiphany is considered the last day of the Christmas holidays.

Which is probably why Jan. 6 is when old-school Crescent Cityites take down their Christmas decorations. Or at least start planning to take down their Christmas decorations. 

If one's Christmas decorations are still visible in June, he or she is unconscionably late by anyone's standards. If one's Christmas decorations are visible in July, he or she is unconscionably early. That's the rule.

Quinquagesima

According to the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, the start of the Mardi Gras season varies from country to country and even city to city. For instance, the Britannica tells us that in Cologne, Germany, things get started on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:11 a.m.  In France the whole shebang takes place on the day before Mardi Gras (plus they add a Thursday later in February). Spain keeps on partying through Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras.

"More generally," the Brittanica states, "the commencement date (of the Mardi Gras season) is Quinquagesima Sunday (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday).

Quinquagesima Sunday? Sure, try pronouncing that after a couple of Andygators.

Happy birthday, Joanie

Jan. 6 is the birthday of Joan of Arc, the 15th-century French hero of the Hundred Years War, who was famously burned at the stake. Which is why the Joan of Arc parade takes place in the French Quarter at 7 p.m. Friday night. Expect pretty horses, weird costumes, women in armor, and incomprehensible religious allusions, as the Krewe de Jeanne d'Arc gets medieval in the Vieux Carre.

The fact that Joan was born on the first day of New Orleans' Mardi Gras season is just a happy coincidence that doesn't really have anything to do with Mardi Gras. Nonetheless, the Joan of Arc parade is the first bona fide Mardi Gras parade.

Phunny Phorty Phellows Phunny Phorty Phellows kicks off Mardi GThe Phunny Phorty Phellows kick off their annual ride with a King's Day party at the RTA streetcar barn on Willow Street on Wednesday January 6, 2016. (Photo by Kathleen Flynn, NOLA.com l The Times-Picayune)
 

Since 1982, the Phunny Phorty Phellows club has kicked off the Mardi Gras season with a Jan. 6 Champagne-fueled ride on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. And this year, for the first time, The Not So Secret Society of Elysian Fields will ceremoniously ride the St. Claude Avenue streetcar to welcome the season. So, in case you see streetcars stuffed with an unusually high number of costumed, inebriated New Orleanians, you'll know why. 

But none of the above explains why we start the Mardi Gras season on Jan. 6 in the first place, does it? For that, we've got to get back to the three kings.

Finally, 16 paragraphs later, an answer

Traditionally Kings Day, aka Epiphany, aka Twelfth Night, is a time of feasting. So, back in 1870, one of the very first Mardi Gras clubs decided to have a parade and party on that night. They called themselves the Twelfth Night Revelers.

According to a 2009 NOLA.com story titled "A History of Mardi Gras" by Becky Retz, The Revelers employed jesters to serve king cake to young ladies at the party. Back then, king cakes had a gilded bean hidden inside (because pink plastic babies were very, very scarce in those days).  Whichever young lady got the lucky bean would be crowned queen of the Revelers. But, according to Retz, the Revelers' jesters went off the rails. 

"It seems the fools were drunk," Retz wrote, and instead of presenting the cake, they either dropped it on or threw it at the women."

Oh you guys!

And there you have it. Since the Twelfth Night Revelers' fateful drunken king cake party, New Orleans has apparently begun the Mardi Gras season on Jan. 6. At least that seems to be the answer.

If you have a better explanation, drop or throw it on us.