Even though there are no Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans this year, there is one in our neighborhood. So Nina decked herself out in beads and did a little research. She’ll tell you that if you want to know anything about Mardi Gras, there is no better source than the Arthur Hardy Mardi Gras Guide, the World’s Foremost Authority on Mardi Gras. Hardy, a New Orleans native and former high school marching bands musician, has been publishing the guide with his wife since 1977.
With or without parades, you can’t have Mardi Gras without king cake. Frosted in purple (representing justice), green (faith), and gold (power), we got one filled with pecan praline—and, of course—a plastic baby. Which leads us to the question of the day. Why the plastic baby?
Let’s go back a few thousand years to the pagan customs of Western Europe. Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility festival, honored the agrarian god Lupercus. Some anthropologists believe that during this time, men randomly chose women to be coupled with for the duration of the festival; others, that naked men ran around frivolously whipping woman, who welcomed the lashes and even bared their skin to receive the fertility rite. Go figure.
This practice was all based on the bean, the humble plant that is often the first to emerge from the earth after winter. It represents rebirth and a successful harvest. During Lupercalia, which was based on even earlier pagan rituals, a chosen man would be treated like a king. To select him, a bean was placed in a cake, and whoever got the bean got the honors. Worshipped like a king, the chosen one would enjoy sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (so to speak) while the peasants imbued in him all their failures and shortcomings. Then he would be sacrificed to atone for their sins, and his blood returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful.
Perhaps the Romans got the idea from the Celts. The druids would sacrifice animals and people to ensure prosperity. The greatest of all sacrifices, of course, would be the king. Since nary a king would opt for that, the druids came up with a king’s substitute, who would eat, drink, fornicate, and make merry. And then be sacrificed.
Either way, the Romans took over the Celts, and the Christians took over the Romans. Deciding it would be prudent to absorb pagan rituals rather than abolish them, the church established carnival as a period of merriment that preceded Lent, a period of penitence that commenced on Ash Wednesday and ended on Easter. During this time, participants ate, drank, and indulged in voluntary madness by donning masks and costumes.
So what does this have to do with a plastic baby?
While many people associate the baby in the king cake with the baby Jesus, it is his death that is pivotal to Mardi Gras. It is commonly believed that Jesus, mocked by the Romans as the “King of the Jews,” was sacrificed to atone for the sins of man (does this sound familiar?) on what has become known as Good Friday. Two days later, he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.
Easter is a moveable feast. Modeled on the Celtic holiday Ostara, it is always the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring), which can be anywhere from March 23 to April 25. It follows then, that Mardi Gras is also a moveable feast. It is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day fasting period known to Christians as Lent. But just to complicate things, the early church forbade fasting on Sundays. Therefore, in order to have a full 40 days of fasting before Easter, Ash Wednesday (i.e., the day after Mardi Gras) falls 46 days before Easter.
Back to the baby. Jesus had to be born before he could die. Although historians he was born in the late summer or early fall, early Christians moved it to mid-winter to coincide with the Celtic winter solstice, a festival that coincided with the ancient Roman fertility festival Saturnalia. Like Lupercalia, Saturnalia involved choosing a substitute king by placing a bean in a cake. Since Christians abhorred human sacrifice, the king cake evolved into a celebration of the three kings (the Magi) visiting baby Jesus twelve days after Christmas. January 6 is now called the Feast of Epiphany.
It is on January 6 that the official Mardi Gras—and King Cake—season begins. One of New Orleans’ oldest Carnival organizations, the Twelfth Night Revelers, in 1870 inserted a gold painted bean into the cake they served to the young women of their court. The girl who got the gold bean reigned as queen for the season. Another tradition began on January 6, 1878, when the Phunny Phorty Phellows rode the Saint Charles Avenue streetcar to announce the beginning of Carnival season.
Meanwhile in France, little charms called feves (i.e., fava beans), were baked into the French version of the king cake. Germany mass produced tons of these elaborate porcelain figures from 1850 to about 1920. They made their way to New Orleans and in particular to McKenzie’s Bakery, where they were stuffed into king cakes. The bean became a baby in the 1950s when the bakery made a deal with a local supplier for cheaper plastic trinkets.
Thus, the humble bean became a painted bean, which became a porcelain figurine, and then a plastic baby.
Today, the Krewe of Prato (the name of our neighborhood), will kick off with a king cake party. Unlike the contemporary grand parades of New Orleans, ours will feature golf carts and walkers rather than floats. But it will be similar to the first New Orleans parade that had no floats and no marchers—just people in costumes walking to a masked ball. It was a parade of masks.
“So, let them eat king cake!” Nina exclaimed. “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”