In 2018, New Orleans is celebrating 300 years of existence—of debauchery, intrigue, and history. Three hundred years of shotgun doubles, parades, Bourbon Street, and Mardi Gras. And while not everything here has been around since New Orleans was first established back in 1718, the exceptional culture that supports them has. So, here’s to jazz music, go-cups, gumbo, and second lines. To festivals, beignets, sno-balls, and streetcars. Here’s to 300 years of what makes New Orleans, New Orleans.
In honor of our tricentennial, we are going to feature a look at a different 300th birthday celebration every month of the year. For January, we are kicking off the festivities with a study of 300 years of the Epiphany and all that that means to us here in New Orleans.
On the 12th Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me…
The Epiphany is considered the day that the Magi, or the three kings, finally made it to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. In fact, the word Epiphany means “manifestation,” as this is believed to be the time that Jesus first manifested his divinity to the three kings. Epiphany occurs on January 6, 12 days after Christmas Day, and at the tail end of the legendary 12 days of Christmas.
Christian folks have been celebrating Epiphany—with drummers drumming and pipers piping—since the end of the 2nd century, even before Christmas was an official holiday, and long before New Orleans was so much as a sparkle in the eye of our city’s founder, Bienville.
Epiphany is also often referred to as Three Kings’ Day, Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany, and, here in New Orleans, the beginning of king cake season and the start of Carnival. Some of the traditional Epiphany customs include attending a church service, “winter swimming” (not recommended in the Mississippi), partaking in the annual Joan of Arc events, taking-down-the-holiday-decorations parties, and eating king cake.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Epiphany is an official public holiday, and therefore, many government offices and other businesses shut down. And while we aren’t lucky enough to get the day off on January 6 here in New Orleans, going into work is worth it, as there is very likely king cake at the office.
A Cake Fit for a King
Speaking of king cake, as already mentioned, January 6 is the official kick-off of the king cake season. Though you can often find some rendition of king cake nearly year-round (such as a heart-shaped variety for Valentine’s Day), the main period of consumption is between Epiphany and Mardi Gras, where as many as 750,000 of the pastries are devoured. Some of the more industrious bakeries manage to crank out 3,500 king cakes a day to keep up with the high demand. And if we’re talking three centuries of king cake, that accounts for hundreds of millions of these delicious desserts.
King cake first appeared in Europe, dating back at least 300 years, and was one of the many customs that the French carried with them when they came and settled Louisiana. The cake has religious origins that correspond with the Epiphany. The round or oval, ring-like shape of the cake, with its hollowed-out center, is meant to symbolize the crowns of the three kings. And even the iconic colors—purple (representing justice), green (faith), and gold (power)—of the king cake icing are said to represent the jewels you’d find in a typical royal crown. (These colors were declared the official colors of Mardi Gras in 1872, by the Krewe of Rex.) And, of course, we mustn’t forget the little plastic baby Jesus—choking and tooth-breaking hazard that it is—that comes with every kingly pastry.
New Orleans-style king cake is made with brioche-like braided dough sprinkled with cinnamon, is iced, and rather resembles a king-sized cinnamon roll in taste and texture. Cakes often have fillings—everything from fruit, Bavarian cream, and cream cheese, to the more creative peanut butter, banana, and bacon; boudin and cracklins; and chocolate chip cookie dough. Our king cake has evolved considerably from the Old World, French-style king cake from which it originated all those many years ago. Some say the cakes of about 300 years past were more like stale French bread than pastry, topped with plain sugar, and stuffed with a bean instead of a mini-Jesus replica. In more recent times and still today, the French version of king cake is made with a flaky pastry dough filled with almond paste. Some local bakeries offer this variety.
An average-sized slice of plain, unfilled king cake has about 343 calories. So, if you were to have a piece every single day of the upcoming Carnival season, you’d consume approximately 13,034 calories in king cake alone. Or, you could have 81 Popeye’s chicken legs or 64 cups of gumbo for the equivalent calorie count. Your call.
Happy birthday, Joanie on the Pony!
January 6 is also the birthday of Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d’Arc, if you use her given French name). Joan of Arc was born in Orleans, France, in the 15th century, and we have been paying tribute to her for well over 300 years now. Famous for her courage in the Hundred Years War and for delivering France from English conquerors, she is one of the patron saints of France, deemed the “Maid of Orleans.” Therefore, she is also unofficially considered the maid and patron saint of the namesake city of New Orleans. Her famous gilded statue located at the French Market—which locals affectionately refer to as Joanie on the Pony—was given to New Orleans by France to commemorate our French ties and 300 years of history.
The Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc was established in 2008 and has been parading in Joan’s honor ever since. Every year on the 6th of January, they march throughout the French Quarter, stopping for a toast, a sword-blessing, and the crowing of the king. Their parade maintains a medieval theme to remain authentic to the time of Joan’s life, and features everything from costumes and knights, to horses and giant puppets. And they have king cake.
The krewe also puts on a variety of Joan-centric and French-friendly events throughout the year, such as films, workshops, and a conference. In addition, they like to conduct public prayers at the foot of Joan’s statue, seeking her assistance in important local matters, such as the success of the Saints.
This January 6 marks the 606th birthday of Joan of Arc. And although the Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc is turning but 10 years old in 2018, they are celebrating the legacy of a woman who is more than twice as old as New Orleans will be this year.
On This Day 300 Years Ago:
January 6, 1718, was a Thursday, and while New Orleans was having its first Epiphany as a city, the Italian writer and jurist Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, as well as the English banker and goldsmith Richard Hoare, also both died that day. Who were they? Who knows, we’ve had 300 years to forget them. Also in the month of January 1718, France declared war on Spain, as if they didn’t have their hands full already with founding New Orleans…