History of King Cakes & Mardi Gras

King Cake History

Today in New Orleans, the King Cake is an oval-shaped braided cake similar to a coffee cake which has cinnamon within the braids and is decorated with icing and sugar the colors of gold (God’s power), green (faith in Christ), and purple (Justice of God) – and contains a tiny plastic baby symbolic of the Baby Jesus usually baked within but sometimes placed within the cake after it has been baked.

Religious tradition is bound to the King Cake. Thus, it is not surprising that the origin of the modern King Cake can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when popular devotion during Christmas not only centered on Jesus Christ, but, also included an interest in the “Three Wise Men,” or “kings,” who had followed a star leading them to pay homage to the Christ Child. The “Epiphany,” a Christian festival held on January 6th honors the “Three Wise Men” for having sought the worlds’ Savior. It is also referred to as “Twelfth Night” since it arrives 12 days after Christmas. As such, the English definition of the term “epiphany” is “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.” The “Three Wise Men” are considered “wise” because they sought the Savior!

Mardi Gras History

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.