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The History of King Cakes
In New Orleans revelry and religious tradition are the ties that bind during Mardi Gras. Thus, it’s not surprising that the origin of the modern King Cake can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when popular devotion during Christmas turned to the Three Wise Men, or Kings, who had followed a star and paid homage to Christ. Epiphany, the end of the Christmas celebration and the 12th night after the birth of Christ, came to be known as “Twelfth Night”, a time for pageants and giving special “King” presents to children.
Today in New Orleans, the King Cake is an oval-shaped braided coffee cake which is decorated with cinnamon sugar in the official Mardi Gras colors – gold (for power), green (faith), and purple (justice) – and contains a tiny plastic baby that has replaced the coin used in medieval times. The person that gets the slice of cake with the baby in it must host the next party; at some parties, they are crowned king or queen. The cake, a gift shared by family, friends and revelers alike, is eaten between the Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday, the beginning of Lent. However, the cake often begins appearing during Christmas.
The History of Mardi Gras
The celebration of Mardi Gras came to North America from France where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages. In 1699, French explorer Iberville and his men explored the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. On a spot 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans, they set up camp on the river’s West Bank. Knowing that the day, March 3, was being celebrated as a major holiday in Paris, they christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.
In the early 19th Century, the public celebration of Mardi Gras consisted mainly of maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. In 1837, a costumed group of revelers walked in the first documented “parade”, but the violent behavior of maskers during the next two decades caused the press to call for an end to Mardi Gras. Fortunately, six New Orleanians who were former members of the Cowbellians, a group that presented New Years Eve parades in Mobile, Al, saved the New Orleans Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization in 1857. The men beautified the celebration and proved that it could be enjoyed in a safe manner. Comus coined the word “Krewe” and established several Mardi Gras traditions by forming a secret Carnival society, choosing a mythological namesake, presenting a themed parade with floats and costumed maskers, and staging a tableau ball following its parade.
Carnival’s growth has continued throughout the years with the birth and death of many parading Krewes. More than one dozen clubs have featured celebrities in their parades. Doubloons lost some of their luster as several Krewes stopped minting them. Krewe-emblemed throws of every imaginable variety gained popularity, however, with imprinted cups leading the pack. Perhaps the greatest change in Mardi Gras has been the tremendous increase in tourism during the Carnival season. Conventions which once had avoided New Orleans at Mardi Gras, used the celebration as a reason to assemble here. International media attention in focused on Mardi Gras, with camera crews from Japan, Europe and Latin America showcasing the festivities. Mardi Gras has become a year-round industry as more off season conventions experienced the joys of Carnival when they were treated to mini-parades and repeat balls held in the city’s convention facilities.